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Malkin concerns puzzle Penguins

As a countryman, friend and local landlord, defenseman Sergei Gonchar has willingly devoted considerable time over the past two seasons talking about - and often for - teammate Evgeni Malkin.

One subject has drawn the ire of Gonchar, who cannot understand a popular theory that Malkin is at his best when captain Sidney Crosby is not around.

"It's just not true," Gonchar said Monday, a day after Malkin pulled within two points of fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin, a Washington left wing, in the NHL scoring race by tallying twice and recording two assists in the Penguins' 7-1 victory against Philadelphia on Sunday.

"I don't think it's the right approach ... to say that somebody has to take a back seat or be in the front seat. It's not fair to either guy to say, 'OK, (Crosby) is No. 1 and (Malkin) is No. 2.' It's not going to work that way."

Crosby, the Penguins' captain, will not play tonight against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He has missed 23 of the past 26 games due to a high right ankle sprain.

The Penguins have gone 13-6-4 without Crosby, the reigning league MVP and scoring champion. They have done so primarily because Malkin, in his second season, has thrust himself into contention for those various honors while assuming Crosby's role as the Penguins' top center.

Malkin has scored 17 goals and recorded 42 points without Crosby - good for 1.83 points per game, compared to 1.12 with Crosby. Malkin has totaled as many multiple-point games this season without Crosby (12) as with him.

Crosby could return to the Penguins' lineup against New Jersey at Mellon Arena on Saturday. Even if he does, all eyes will remain on Malkin, who scored only a goal to go with three assists in three games Crosby played March 4-9 after missing 21 consecutive contests due to his injury.

Gonchar is most vocal among teammates who urge outsiders not to read too much into the difference in Malkin's productivity with and without Crosby.

"They played two games together when Sid came back before 'Geno' had three assists and Sid scored two goals against Washington (March 9)," Gonchar said. "Two games, that's all. It's not fair to judge them based off two games. They were really good in the third game - a game that was tight like a playoff game, too."

Forward Maxime Talbot, a close friend to Crosby and Malkin's traveling roommate, said talk - in the media or among fans - of "a different Malkin when Sid plays" is "insane."

"Look, they are two of the best players in the world, and they play the same position, and they're both dominant," Talbot said. "That's a bad thing?

"This idea that Geno is a better player without Sid - that's just nonsense. It's, like, all of a sudden people are worried about Sid coming back. It's like any team wouldn't want Sid to come back and play with Geno.

"It's not No. 1 and No. 1-A. It's not No. 1 and No. 2. With Geno and Sid, it's Nos. 1 and 1. Throw in (right wing Marian Hossa) and it's Nos. 1 and 1 and 1. We've got a lot of No. 1s. It's not a terrible problem."

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