– Despite not being fluent in English, Evgeni Malkin
was still feeling the heat for his performance against the Capitals.
"When a competitive guy like this is reading all that stuff and knowing what's going on, it's probably going to give him that extra energy to prove to everyone that they're wrong," Pens defenseman Sergei Gonchar said
With his stellar effort in Game 3 Wednesday, Malkin certainly silenced all his critics. He had a goal and created numerous chances, was a force over the ice, and a day later teammates still were marveling over his play.
"He turned it up for sure," Sidney Crosby
said. "It was a big game, and great players want to step up in the big games and he did that. … For the past few days he's taken a lot of criticism and not all of it for good reason. He's taken it upon himself to raise his game and you saw that last night."
"Even if he doesn’t score, he was determined to be out there on the ice and play well," forward Matt Cooke
said. "(Wednesday) he was at a different level. We're a better team when he's at that level."
Malkin hadn't been at that level in a while, especially in the first two games of the Capitals series. In Game 1, he nearly was invisible, finishing with an assist, two shots and a minus-1 rating in 20:49 of ice time. He was better in Game 2, but his third-period penalty led to Alexander Ovechkin's power-play goal that put the Caps ahead, 3-2.
Questions and criticisms were flying. Malkin had gone five games without a goal. His playoff flameout from last season was being resurrected -- after scoring 17 points in his first 10 games last spring, he had five points in his last 10.
The critical onslaught was new to Malkin. The second pick of the 2004 Entry Draft, he's experienced primarily success since arriving in Pittsburgh. He won the 2007 Calder Trophy, has two straight 100-point seasons to his credit, is a Hart Trophy finalist for the second-straight season, and this season won his first Art Ross Trophy for leading the League with 113 points. He's also a finalist for this year's Lester B. Pearson Award.
"He was so good all the time playing back home, growing up, I don't think he's faced that much criticism in his life," Gonchar said. "But at the same time, if you look at it he responded pretty well. Only thing you can do is prove you are good, only thing you can do is play well. He went out there and he proved he's a good player."
Gonchar, who has served as Malkin's mentor during his adjustment to the NHL life, said he's learned just how competitive Malkin is, and wasn't at all surprised by his breakout performance.
"He didn't play as well in the first couple games (of the series)," said Gonchar, "but a player like this, you know that if he doesn't do well for a couple games, he's going to break out, and (Game 3) was the case."
Coach Dan Bylsma was becoming more irritated by the day when the subject turned to Malkin's perceived poor play, so he might have been as happy as anyone to finally let that subject go.
"I think a lot of attention is given when your team doesn't win and a guy you expect to see on the score sheet, or has been there a lot and isn't there, a lot has been made of it," he said. "… There was certainly a feeling that he had to do more, and from his standpoint he felt that from all the attention. To see him come out and play a more determined game, a focused game, and really take it to a different level, it was great to see for him personally.
"Our team obviously needs everyone to play well and we need to take it to another level to get back into the series. But to see a guy who was under scrutiny and maybe struggling go out there and really pick up his game and play like that -- I don't know if you saw the reaction of his parents when the puck went in the net, but we all felt that way."
Malkin's parents were part of the sellout crowd at Mellon Arena for Game 3, and just like they want more chances to cheer on their son, the Penguins need to see more nights like Game 3. And while the chants of "Geno, Geno" rained down from the crowd, Gonchar said Malkin is smart enough to know that one game won't fully change public opinion.
"He's young, but he's mature and he knows one game doesn't mean anything," Gonchar said. "He has to go out there and prove it again and again. And that's what I think he'll do."Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.