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Malkin Hits 500

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game against Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 18, 2006.

At the time, Malkin – then 20 years old – said he felt worried going into his league debut, adding through interpreter George Birman, “In the future, I think it is going to be easier.”

He’s certainly made it look easy in the years since.

Malkin, now 25, scored his 500th career point on Sunday against Boston, when he earned the primary assist on Matt Niskanen’s goal in the first period of the Penguins’ 5-2 win over the Bruins, Pittsburgh’s ninth straight win.

The Magnitogorsk native is now the 17th Russian-born player, and fifth active, to reach 500 points.

He went on to add points No. 501 and 502, primary assists on James Neal and Chris Kunitz goals, to give him sole possession of eighth place on the team’s all-time scoring list, surpassing Syl Apps.

“I just enjoy it, you know?,” Malkin said of what reaching the milestone means to him. “I just enjoy playing hockey and enjoy playing with my linemates. I think we did a great job today. It was a huge three goals and we won two points.

“I don’t think about my points now. The season continues and playoffs are coming soon. I just enjoy playing the game and enjoy stepping on the ice every game and every practice. It was a big win today and I hope we win the next one, too.”

After scoring on Brodeur in his NHL debut, Malkin went on a tear – tallying in each of the following five games to become the first NHL player in 89 years to accomplish such a feat.

And injuries aside, the young superstar hasn’t slowed down since.

Beginning with his NHL debut, a 2-1 loss to the Devils at Mellon Arena, Malkin dressed in 254 straight games – which ranks fourth in team history for the longest consecutive games played streak.

He piled up 318 points (119G-199A) – a ridiculous 1.25 points-per-game average – in that span before being sidelined with a shoulder injury on Oct. 30, 2009 vs. Columbus.

And that stretch contained some absolutely incredible hockey.

He dominated his entire rookie season, scoring 33 goals and 85 points to beat teammate Jordan Staal and Avalanche forward Paul Stastny for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.

The following season (2007-08), Malkin scored what still stands as a career-high 47 goals, finishing with 106 points and leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1991-92 season.

He didn’t win the league scoring title that season (finishing second behind countryman Alex Ovechkin) and the Penguins would fall in six games to the mighty Detroit Red Wings in the Cup Final. But Malkin’s efforts laid the groundwork for a magical 2008-09 campaign.

Malkin wouldn’t miss on either count the following year, as he scored 113 points (35G-78A) in the regular season to capture the Art Ross Trophy.

He then put the team on his back and scored 14 goals and 22 assists in 24 postseason games to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship – and was rewarded with the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) award.

Malkin became the first player since Penguins owner/legend Mario Lemieux in 1992 to win the Art Ross and the Conn Smythe in the same season, and just the fifth player in NHL history (since expansion in 1967) to win the regular-season and postseason scoring titles in one season, joining Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Phil Esposito.

Unfortunately, Malkin would be nagged with injuries over the next two seasons, beginning with the 2009-10 campaign. He missed a total of 14 games with shoulder and foot injuries (but still managed to score 77 points – 28G-49A).

The 2010-11 campaign would be his most adverse, as he played just 43 games before his season ended due to suffering ligament damage in his right knee. Malkin returned to his native Russia in the offseason with an unprecedented level of commitment to getting healthy and being in the best shape possible.

And it’s paid off.

His teammates and coaches agree that this is the best they’ve seen Malkin play since that incredible 2008-09 season – and perhaps ever.

“Of course it’s fun because I lost lots of games, close to 50 games,” Malkin said of last season. “It’s a lot. Of course I’m hungry to play every game.”

Malkin’s three-point effort on Saturday afternoon gives him 84 total points, pulling him two points ahead of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos into first place of the NHL scoring race.

Malkin has been incredibly consistent this season, having never been held pointless in more than two straight games this season. He’s gone on especially torrid stretches that’s seen him earn a multitude of league honors and gives him a pretty good opportunity to win his second Art Ross Trophy when the season ends.

But perhaps most importantly, Malkin has put the Penguins on his back when the team has needed him most. And because of that, he may capture an award he has yet to win – the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

“Maybe a little bit, yeah, of course,” Malkin responded when asked if he ever thinks about winning the Hart. “I see the signs when I’m in warmups and people say the MVP chant. Of course I see and of course I think about it a little bit. I just try to focus every game. I did not score the last two games and did not get a point, but I’m just focused every game and it was a big game tonight, too.”
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