PITTSBURGH -- The suffocating defensive trio of forward Henrik Zetterberg
and defensemen Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom
has limited Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby to one assist in three games. It’s an impressive feat when you consider that Crosby has posted 29 points in 20 games and Detroit held off the board for two consecutive games.
With Crosby tied up by Zetterberg, forward Evgeni Malkin has stepped up with five points this series, including a playmaker (three assists) in Game 3. Malkin struggled last year in the Stanley Cup Finals, registering a goal and an assist in the six games, but another year in the league has helped Malkin adjust to the demands on an NHL player.
“What I’ve seen this year is probably the confidence level,” teammate Sergei Gonchar said. “It’s his third year in the NHL, second year in the finals. I do believe his confidence level is higher.”
Gonchar has played an important role mentoring the 22-year-old forward. When Malkin arrived in August 2006, Gonchar took his fellow Russian under his wings. Malkin could not speak English so Gonchar invited him into his home and acted as his interpreter.
Even though Malkin moved into his own house earlier this season and his English has improved, Gonchar still provides support for the center on and off the ice. During the press conference following Wednesday’s optional practice, Malkin couldn’t find the word to fit what he was trying to say. Gonchar leaned over and whispered the word “space” to him, enabling Malkin to continue answering the reporter’s question.
“It’s a tough situation,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “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. And he’s a fiery competitor. He’s passionate. He wants desperately to win.”
With the help of teammates and the understanding of his role on the team, Malkin has become more openly relaxed outside of the locker room.
“He is a funny guy,” veteran Bill Guerin said. “And it’s kind of obvious when he’s going to carve somebody because he goes right from English right into Russian, so you can’t understand it. But that’s one side that I don’t really think people understand. I think people think he’s kind of a quiet guy. But he’s got a great sense of humor to him.”
Wings coach Mike Babcock believes last year’s trip to the finals gave Malkin experience and an understanding of the demands and pressures of a long postseason, allowing Malkin to just focus on hockey this time around.
“I think he’s a big guy that can hang on to the puck,” said Babcock of Malkin’s skillset. “He comes from the neutral zone with some speed. Because of his reach and his size he can be hard to handle on the cycle. But I don’t think anybody’s really surprised. He’s one of the best players in the world.”
The Wings have noticed how Malkin is playing with a lot of confidence this year and the team faces a challenge trying to corral the star forward in the remainder of the series.
“Last year people were talking about him having a virus or whatever it was,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall
said. “This year, I think he’s just being himself. You can see it every time he’s on the ice, he’s a dangerous player and doing all the right things and we have to do a good job of just trying to stay on top of him and not give him too much room.”