Certain players in the NHL have a way of transcending their game to a level so high that they can single handedly will their team to victory. Evgeni Malkin
is one of those players, and if the Penguins are going to knock off the reigning champion Detroit Red Wings, they’re going to need Malkin to rise to the occasion.
So far, the MVP candidate has delivered. Malkin, the NHL’s reigning Art Ross champion after scoring 113 points (35G-78A) in the regular season, is the leading postseason scorer with 33 points on 13 goals and 20 assists – the most playoff points scored since Colorado’s Joe Sakic’s 34 in 1996.
Including his three-assist performance in a critical 4-2 Game 3 victory over Detroit Tuesday night, Malkin has 21 points (8G-13A) and seven multi-point games in his last 10 contests, including his first career playoff hat trick in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final.
What’s more, he is also the leading scorer in the Stanley Cup Final with five points. Malkin has figured in on five of his team’s six goals against the Red Wings – with Maxime Talbot’s empty-net score being the lone exception.
“My teammates help me every time and coach too,” Malkin said of his success. “I’m trying to play a little bit harder and more physical. Of course, I’m learning how to play now, and it’s my second Final. It’s (against) the same team. I know how to play Detroit, and I try to play a little bit harder.”
No one has had a better view of the 22-year-old’s progress and maturity as a player and person than defenseman Sergei Gonchar. The two played together during the NHL lockout in Magnitogorsk, Russia, and Malkin lived in Gonchar’s house during his first two NHL seasons.
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Gonchar has watched Malkin’s development as he adapted to a new country, new culture and playing hockey at the highest level in the world.
“What I’ve seen this year is probably the confidence level,” Gonchar said. “It’s his third year in the NHL, second year in the Final. I do believe his confidence level is higher. I remember him back in Russia and what he was capable of. And now it seems like he matured a little bit more and he’s more comfortable on the ice, and with his partners and with the game. That’s why he’s playing at his best.”
Malkin wasn’t at his best in last year’s Stanley Cup run for Pittsburgh. A battle with an illness left the young star physically drained towards the end of the playoffs. He started that campaign strong with eight goals and nine assists for 17 points in the first 10 games.
But the illness caused his play to suffer and, as a result, Malkin mustered just four points in his final eight postseason games. He tallied three points (1G-2A) in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, but was scoreless in the first four contests.
“(Last year) it’s my first year in the (Final),” Malkin said. “I’m learning how to play in playoffs. (Now) it’s my second Final. I feel great now. And last year I was a little bit sick, and now I feel great.”
“It was his first time playing that long,” defenseman Brooks Orpik
said. “I don’t think his body was really physically ready for it. I think he’s done a lot better job off the ice preparing his body for this time of year. He has some room to learn and room to grow. I think he’s done a really good job of committing himself off the ice, which has paid big dividends for him now.”
But Malkin’s maturity isn’t merely isolated to his performance on the ice. His demeanor off the ice is changing as well. As the Russian native becomes more and more comfortable with his surroundings, he is allowing his easy-going and humorous personality to shine.
Though most people think Malkin is shy, the truth is the exact opposite. He does shy away from the media and attention, mostly because he is still learning the English language, but Malkin never misses an opportunity to hassle one of his teammates.
When he was asked at a press conference about Talbot, Malkin had this to say:
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“A little bit bad hands. He has lots of scoring chances and doesn’t score; just empty nets. It’s OK. He’ll learn over the summer.”
Because of Malkin’s media shyness, most people don’t get to see his personality too often.
“That’s one side that I don’t really think people understand,” veteran Bill Guerin said. “I think people think he’s kind of a quiet guy. But he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s extremely funny. And it’s kind of obvious when he’s going to carve somebody because he goes from English right into Russian so you can’t understand it.”
“I think it's tough to see from the outside,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “But it doesn't take long when you are in the room and you see him. That's not odd for him to crack up the room or say something that gets a laugh or a joke.”
But maybe more importantly, Malkin has learned how to keep his boss happy.
“He's the first guy to laugh at my jokes, that's why I like him,” Bylsma said smiling.
Malkin’s teammates also enjoy his quirky character. He has become a locker room favorite among everyone in the Penguins organization.
“He's a great teammate,” Bylsma said. “He's very serious about being a hockey player. It's a tough situation. There's a lot of hurdles coming from his culture and being a young kid. But that's who he is. That's who Evgeni is. He's a fiery competitor. He's passionate. He wants desperately to win. And at the same time you'll get the Max Talbot joke pretty regularly out of that guy. So it certainly adds to our room not only with his skill level, obviously, on the ice, but he's a well liked teammate because of the way he is in that room.”