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Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year Malkin Hits Offensive Groove

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
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Evgeni Malkin capped one of the greatest individual seasons in National Hockey League history in 2008-09 by lifting the Stanley Cup. He also joined Penguins owner Mario Lemieux in becoming the second player in franchise history to capture the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring champion and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in the same season.

Those were far from the only awards Malkin received after he led the NHL with 113 points (35G-78A) in the regular season, and followed that up with a league-best 36 more (14G-22A) in the postseason. Malkin also took home NHL First-Team All-Star recognition, won Penguins MVP honors for a second-straight season and was elected a starter for the Eastern Conference at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game.

Malkin’s honors for an extraordinary season grew by one on Sunday when he was named the recipient of the 2009 Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award.

“I am so excited,” Malkin said. “It is an award that Sid (Sidney Crosby) has won twice before. I had a great year. It feels good to win.

“I can’t stop performing. I need to keep working every year so that I can keep reaching the next level.”

Among the finalists Malkin edged out include Penguins general manager Ray Shero, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, University of Pittsburgh tailback Dion Lewis and Pitt head football coach Dave Wannstedt.

The Sportsman of the Year award is sponsored by Dapper Dan Charities in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the winner is chosen via an online vote. Penguins fans came out in strong numbers once again to catapult Malkin to the forefront of the competition.

“I would really like to thank the fans,” Malkin said. “The fans of Pittsburgh are the best in the world. I would like to thank them so much for supporting me and for supporting the team. That was a good job by them.”

Ironically, right around the time Malkin found out he was winning the prestigious award for his performance in 2009, he began finding the back of the cage at a rate similar to last season.

Heading into Monday’s matchup with the Buffalo Sabres, Malkin was riding his hottest stretch of the current season.

Malkin is on a season-high seven-game scoring streak which has seen him find the back of the net six times, including his second hat trick in less than a month on Jan. 19 against the New York Islanders. Malkin has added six assists during the stretch to give him a total of 12 points.

“I feel a lot better out there because I have been able to score a couple goals,” Malkin said. 

Malkin credits his recent hot streak to a meeting he had recently with head coach Dan Bylsma and the rest of the Penguins coaching staff.

“I had a couple meetings with the coaches and they helped me change my game to get me back to the level I was at last season,” Malkin said. “Now I feel very good out there.”

Matt Cooke has another explanation – Malkin’s move from the left point on the power play back to a spot along the right-side wall where he is in a better position to open up for one-time shots being a left-handed shot.

Since the move Malkin has scored four times on the man-advantage to give him 10 for the season, tied for fifth-most in the league as of Sunday.

“He’s definitely a one-timer threat,” Cooke said. “We’ve seen that in a couple of games. I think that just giving those guys – Gonch (Sergei Gonchar) and Sid and Geno – a little more freedom to move around and force their box to stay with us makes us more successful.”

Prior to Malkin’s hot spell the 23-year-old forward was battling through one of the few slumps of his four-year career. Cooke is impressed with how Malkin worked to overcome his difficult stretch.

“He’s taken it upon himself to be more responsible, be dependable,” Cooke said. “I think that’s what everyone got accustomed to knowing, and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t there. Every player goes through stretches where it’s tough and things don’t come easy - kudos to him for working through it.”

Malkin said he also has felt comfortable the past two weeks because he has spent an extended stretch centering the same unit – one with Ruslan Fedotenko on his left side and rookie Nick Johnson to his right, although against Detroit on Sunday Malkin played on a with Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis.

Johnson stepped into the void created with Maxime Talbot, who spent last postseason with Malkin and Fedotenko, in and out of the lineup due to various injuries.

“I like to play with the same guys as long as I can,” Malkin said. “Last year I played with Max and Ruslan. Max has had injuries this year so we have had to change the third guy a couple times.

“Johnson has played really well the games that he has been with us. I like how he is a right-handed shot. Having that right shot makes things so much easier for both me and for the line. I like playing with Ruslan because he speaks Russian which makes it easier for me.”

The trio combined to score a gorgeous goal against Ottawa on Jan. 28.

Fedotenko picked one of the Senators’ pockets near the Ottawa blue line and fed Johnson down along the goal line in the near corner. Johnson threaded a pass under the stick of Anton Volchenkov right onto the blade of Malkin, who made no mistake blistering a shot over the glove of Brian Elliott to open the scoring.

Malkin said such a strategy – simply working to just get pucks on net – has been the key for his and his line’s success.

“We have been trying to play real simple,” he said. “We are just trying to shoot the puck. I want to make sure we don’t stop and keep playing the same way.”

Malkin playing the same way – now that’s a scary thought for the rest of the NHL. If he maintains a pace anywhere close to this, there will be more awards coming his way following this season.

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