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Penguins' Malkin Earns Hart Vote at Halfway Point

by Dan Rosen / Pittsburgh Penguins

With the first half of the 2014-15 season complete, NHL.com looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin scored a goal Wednesday against the Boston Bruins that offered a window into how he feels about himself and his game this season.

He had awareness. Malkin quickly broke out from below the dots in the defensive zone as soon as he instinctively felt Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff had the puck and could get it to him.

He generated speed. Malkin blew past Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton in the neutral zone to create room for himself in the attacking zone, above the left circle.

He used his power. Malkin put all of it behind a slap shot that hit its target over goalie Tuukka Rask's left shoulder.

He acted like he had been there before. Malkin's celebration was mild, nothing over the top, suggesting the kind of bravado great players play with when they're feeling great.

"I don't think people realize that when he does go straight ahead like that it really pushes the defense off, they really have to worry about him trying to dance and be too fine, but that was vintage old-time hockey," NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk said. "That was get it, bulldoze your way through the middle, and say I'm going to give it my best shot and you're not going to stop me whether it's physically or the shot."

Malkin has played with awareness, speed, power and bravado since Day 1 this season. He had 45 points on 18 goals and 27 assists in 40 games before scoring a goal and adding an assist Saturday. He is the leader for the Hart Trophy at the halfway point.

"I'm [feeling] good," Malkin told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after the game against Boston. "I think maybe this is [the] best I've been in a long time. And I think I can be the big player for us this year."

Malkin hasn't been as good as he is this season since 2011-12, when he had 109 points on 50 goals and 59 assists to win the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award. He's on pace for around 36 goals and 90 points, but he might be better this season than he was in 2011-12 because he's produced at better than a point-per-game pace without having steady linemates.

Sidney Crosby was injured for most of the 2011-12 season, allowing Malkin to play regularly with Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

This season, Malkin has played the most with Blake Comeau and Brandon Sutter, a little bit with Pascal Dupuis before he got hurt, some with the oft-injured Beau Bennett, occasionally with Nick Spaling, here and there with Bryan Rust and Andrew Ebbett, and with Crosby when the Penguins have wanted instant offense from their best players.

The result: Malkin started the season with an 11-game point streak (five goals, 11 assists) and finished Saturday with points in 31 of his first 41 games, including 13 multipoint games. He is playing well no matter who plays alongside him. He's making everyone around him better too.

Comeau had 19 points through 32 games, putting him on pace for his best season since 2010-11, when he had 46 points in 77 games with the New York Islanders. Sutter, who has played center with Malkin on his left wing, had 15 points in 38 games; he had 26 points in 81 games last season. Bennett scored his second goal of the season Wednesday off a reverse forehand pass from behind the net by Malkin.

"When you think most valuable player and what it means," Olczyk said, "it's hard to argue [with Malkin]."

FINALISTS

Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks: Typically Getzlaf has Corey Perry at his side, helping him become one of the best centers in the NHL. This season, Getzlaf became a Hart Trophy candidate when Perry was out of the lineup. Getzlaf had 19 points on six goals and 13 assists in the 14 games Perry missed because of the mumps and a knee injury. Getzlaf led the NHL with 20 points in December and has 45 points through 41 games while averaging 20:30 of ice time per game.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: Rinne is the biggest reason the Predators had the NHL's highest points percentage (points earned divided by total possible points) at the halfway point of the season, which was Saturday. He had a League-high 27 wins in 35 starts, three shutouts, a 2.00 goals-against average and .929 save percentage before leading the Predators to a 3-1 road win against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. Rinne is first among goalies with 20 or more starts in GAA and save percentage. Before Saturday, he had allowed two goals or fewer in 26 of his 35 starts.

Also in the mix: Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; Rick Nash, New York Rangers

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