"It's my time."
Evgeni Malkin uttered those words inside the Penguins locker room following his five-point night in an 8-6 come-from-behind victory against the Vancouver Canucks at PPG Paints Arena Wednesday night.
Malkin was talking about shouldering the burden for the Penguins with several key players currently out of the lineup with injuries, including captain Sidney Crosby.
All Malkin has done in Crosby's eight-game absence is post 13 points (4G-9A) as Pittsburgh has gone 4-1-3 during that stretch.
"We had a couple bad injuries. I understand it's my time," Malkin said. "I'm trying to do my best."
Elevating his game in the absence of Crosby is nothing new for Malkin. He's been doing it his entire career, in fact.
Malkin has 173 points (70G-103A) in 128 games without Crosby. That's a 1.35 points per game average. Which is higher than his 1.15 points per game WITH Crosby in the lineup.
"He's one of the best players in the world, so just the way he's playing right now, it's special to see and special to be a part of," linemate Jake Guentzel said. "You just want to give him the puck as much as you can."
That would seem to be an effective strategy for the Penguins. Malkin is thriving and wants the puck.
"It's a fun game right now for me," Malkin said.
Last season wasn't as fun. Though he scored 21 goals and 72 points in 68 games, he wasn't the dominant generational star that he's been throughout his career. But he rededicated himself in the offseason to getting back to his worldly status.
At 33 years old, Malkin knows he won't be able to play forever. He wants to make the most of whatever time he has left.
"Last year I wasn't happy with what I did," Malkin said. "How many years left do I have to play pro hockey? I'm just trying to enjoy every day. I know I'm a great player. I've played hockey all my life. I'm just enjoying it."
Malkin should be enjoying it. He's on fire - just as he said he needed to be while giving an interview in New Jersey when a fire alarm accidentally went off. And his 18 points (5G-13A) in the past 11 games is certainly incendiary.
"I'm just feeling it," he said. "Coach gave me time. I played all three zones, faceoff, power play. My confidence is huge right now."
That confidence was on full display against the Canucks. Malkin helped the Penguins take a 2-0 lead in the first period with a pair of assists. On the first he won an offensive zone faceoff to Guentzel, who buried the shot. On the second, Malkin made a ridiculous pass through the Canucks' PK box to Bryan Rust in the slot. Rust did the rest.
But it was when the Penguins fell behind 6-3 early in the third period that Malkin led the charge. He set the tone by example, jumping over the boards and exerting maximum effort despite the circumstances.
The Penguins went on the power play after cutting the lead to 6-4. Malkin carried the puck over the blue line and set up above the near circle. The Canucks didn't apply any pressure. So Malkin unleashed a heavy slap shot that ticketed the top far corner. Malkin let out a celebratory fist pump as the crowd erupted.
"I saw someone in front of the net and saw high blocker was a little bit open," Malkin said. "I just tried to score. I know I have a good shot. Just take the moment. No one was coming to me. I took a couple steps and tried to shoot high blocker. I think it's a nice goal."
The Penguins tied the game with 9:30 remaining in the third period. A victory felt within grasp, though not a given.
With just over three minutes to play in the third period, Malkin whipped the puck behind the net to Guentzel. He found defenseman Kris Letang for the game-winning goal.
But Malkin wasn't done yet. With just three seconds remaining on the clock and victory assured, he was in a foot race for a loose puck in the offensive zone with Vancouver's Elias Pettersson. Both players dove. Malkin edged out his opponent and put the puck into the empty net with .2 seconds remaining.
That was the kind of effort Malkin exerted from the moment the puck dropped all the way until the final .2 seconds.
Malkin led. The rest of the team followed.
"It's great when our leader leads the way he did tonight," Letang said. "It's easy for the other guys to fall in line and do the job. We need him to play the same way he did tonight. I think it's a good example for all the guys in the room."