With Sidney Crosby out of the Penguins’ lineup, many thought the Art Ross Trophy might not return to Pittsburgh this offseason.
Evgeni Malkin is making a strong case against that belief.
The young center has picked up his game out of necessity after Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain on Jan. 18. Malkin was skating on Crosby’s left wing – now, he’s the man in the middle of the Penguins’ first line.
And, he’s responded well to the challenge with eight goals and 13 assists in 10 games since the Penguins lost their captain to injury. That put him within striking distance in the NHL scoring race. Through the Penguins’ first 56 games, Malkin had 73 points (31+42) – just three points behind Alexander Ovechkin’s NHL-best 76 points.
“Geno has definitely gotten noticed where he’s now taking his game to the next level,” said teammate and linemate Ryan Malone. “He’s playing the system and working hard, blocking shots and doing whatever it takes to win. He’s a great team player and he’s going to go out there and do everything he can to score goals or create opportunities offensively. You can’t say enough about him right now. He’s definitely getting the attention. We all knew he was a great player, but with Sid out, he’s under the microscope a little more so people are actually seeing how talented he is.”
Malkin, who has 15 points during five consecutive multiple-point games helped guide the Penguins to a 6-2-2 record in the first 10 games without Crosby. In addition, the team has not lost successive games in regulation since Dec. 11-13. Those are key statistics, especially when the Eastern Conference playoff race is so tight.
“He just wants to win. That’s the best thing about him and Sid,” Malone said. “If there’s a little competition in practice, his line wants to win. That carries over in the games where, if we are down a couple goals, you can usually tell Geno is going out there and giving his all that next shift to try to get the guys back into it. He leads by example, obviously, since there are not too many words coming out of his mouth.”
Malkin tallied 85 points (33+52) in 78 games last season en route to winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. The 21-year-old is well ahead of that pace this season. At his current rate, he projects to finish with 107 points (45+62).
Still, Malkin could care less about personal statistics.
“I don’t think about how many goals I am going to score,” he said through translator George Birman. “I am just trying to help the team make the playoffs. That’s my first goal. I don’t think about the personal records.”
Nevertheless, Malkin is not just impressing with his offensive abilities. Centering a line with Malone and Petr Sykora, Malkin is playing a solid defensive game, too. It’s easy to spot him skating back into the defensive zone just as aggressively as he does when he’s attacking an opponent’s offensive zone.
“With me and Sykora out there, somebody has to play defense,” Malone said with a laugh. “He’s making smart plays. He’s not really putting himself out there to turn over the puck. He’s getting the puck in deep and we’re trying to keep a high guy to make sure we’re not giving up opportunities defensively. He’s done a great job of thinking defensively, yet he’s contributing and still doing what he’s doing.”
For his efforts, Malkin was rewarded with a spot in the NHL All-Star Game, where he served as a replacement for the injured Crosby. He had two assists in the first of what could be many all-star appearances for the talented Russian.
“He was nervous to begin with, but he adjusted,” said Penguins and all-star teammate Sergei Gonchar. “I told him before the game to just enjoy his time here and relax. He played well. He said it was a good experience. He had fun and enjoyed playing with the guys. He had a good time.”
Penguins coach Michel Therrien is pleased to see Malkin take charge to help the team replace some of the scoring and playmaking voids created by Crosby’s absence.
“We know he is a quality player. A lot of people know that around the league,” he said. “I want him to take responsibility because he is our best forward, but I don’t want him to think he has to do it by himself. He has to make good players around him better. That’s what good players do. Sidney is doing that. Mario Lemieux did that. Wayne Gretzky did that. This is what special players are capable of doing. He doesn’t have to do it on his own and we don’t want him to do it on his own. We just want him to stick to the plan and make the other players around him better and we should be fine.”
Malkin’s impact to the Penguins isn’t just limited to his personal statistics. He’s creating opportunities for his teammates, especially Malone and Sykora. Both of Malkin’s wingers have been on fire, too.
“We’ve played together before,” Malone said. “I am kind of used to how Geno plays. I think we have a good little bond right now.”
According to Malone, playing with Malkin at center is a lot like having Crosby in the middle.
“You just give those guys the puck. I have to do my job along the wall to give those guys the puck,” he said. “They both do a good job of supporting me on the wall. They both have a lot of speed coming through the middle of the ice there and they create opportunities that way. I just try to keep my stick on the ice and always be ready. They are a little bit different – I think Geno is looking to maybe shoot a little more, so I am just trying to get to the net, whereas Sid is maybe looking to pass first and then shoot. Overall, they are talented players and we just try to get open and they’ll find you.”