Just like the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin was more prepared for the playoffs this season.
It certainly shows on the ice.
The 21-year-old’s emergence has been a key for the Penguins, who swept Ottawa in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Last year as a rookie, Malkin was limited to four points – all assists – in a 4-1 series loss to the Senators. Malkin already has seven points (2+5) and ranks second on the Penguins.
That effort is a continuation of his success in the regular season as he challenged for the NHL scoring title, but finished second with 106 points (47+59).
“I don’t want to prove anything. I just want my team to win and get all the way through and win as many games as we can,” Malkin said through translator George Birman. “We’re a team and we’re playing as a team.”
Indeed. It’s the team concept that has made the Penguins such a dangerous force. He centers the team’s second line with wingers Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora. That line, along with the first unit of Sidney Crosby and wingers Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, gives the Penguins two top offensive lines that rival those of any other team’s top unit in the postseason.
“We have a lot of players who are dangerous out there and people can’t focus on stopping just one line,” Crosby said. “Plus, I think maybe he’s just a little more fresh. His first year, he went through a lot of things and he was injured at the start of the season. Your first full season, it’s always a little bit of an adjustment. I think he is just fresher right now.”
In his second season, Malkin is better prepared mentally and physically for the grueling playoff schedule than he was last year when he was admittedly tired from the grind of his first NHL season and all the circumstances surrounding his arrival in North America.
“Yes, one year of experience is a big deal,” he said. “I feel pretty strong. I had a great summer and I tried to get myself ready before the season started. I just feel good. We have many games to go and I just want to help my team to go all the way through.”
Despite overcoming many off-ice obstacles and a shoulder injury in training camp, Malkin won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie last season as he finished with 85 points (33+52) in 78 games. However, he really broke through this season.
“He’s playing really well. He’s playing the same way he played the second half of the season,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “It was a tough playoffs for him last year, no doubt. But, he’s motivated and a true leader for our club, like Sidney. When you have your leaders motivated offensively, the way they are now, we feel we’re in a good position. Evgeni is playing really well and he’s focused. He’s really hungry. He’s playing a more mature game than a year ago. He’s responsible defensively, too.”
Malkin is a big reason why the Penguins are in the postseason. When Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain on Jan. 18, Malkin was the man who led the charge. He tallied 46 points (20+26) in the 29 games Crosby was out of the lineup for the Penguins.
All told, Malkin turned it on in the second half of the season with 62 points (31+31) over the Penguins’ final 40 games
“He was more under the radar when we lost Crosby. The attention was on Sid for everything he did as a 19-year-old and rightfully so,” Therrien said. “When we ended up losing Sid, there were not a lot of people expecting us to make the playoffs. There was a lot of doubt regarding our team. Malkin was our guy and he was able to elevate his game. He knows he is a good team guy and a good teammate. He took charge of that team and definitely in the second half of the season was the best player in the NHL.”
Another boost for Malkin is his full-time transition back to center. Last year, Malkin split time between center and wing. This year, he’s primarily been slotted at center. The move has allowed the Penguins’ offense to diversify its attack and Malkin to display the creativity and playmaking abilities that made him the second-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
“Yes, one year of experience is a big deal and I feel more comfortable playing at center,” he said. “Compared to last season, I played more on the wing. This year, I feel much more comfortable.
Crosby has seen Malkin’s abilities shine at center.
“Definitely. That’s his natural position and he can make a lot happen. He is a guy who makes a lot of guys around him better, too, so from that position, he is able to set up guys and skate with the puck,” he said. “He’s handling the puck a lot, so I think that is a natural position for him.”