Ponikarovsky's job: Get Malkin on right track

| Thursday, March 4, 2010

Evgeni Malkin is close to getting his wish.

"A (lineup) of guys all speaking Russian," he said Wednesday after the Penguins practiced at Southpointe. "Tell him if we get one more Russian like (defenseman Sergei Gonchar), we can have five guys all speaking the same — just like back home."

The "him" to whom Malkin was jokingly referring is Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who acquired Russian-speaking left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky from Toronto for prospect Luca Caputi and defenseman Martin Skoula late Tuesday night.

Ponikarovsky, a childhood friend of Penguins winger Ruslan Fedotenko, will not join his new club until Friday because of time needed for the United States government to process his P-1 work visa. He will not play tonight against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

However, when Ponikarovsky does finally don a Skating Penguin sweater, he likely will find a fit with Fedotenko as Malkin's wingers because the Penguins prefer to keep together a top scoring line of center Sidney Crosby and wingers Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin.

With 66 points in 56 games Malkin is .20 points-per-game off his pace from last season, when he paced the NHL with 113 in 82 games. His regular wingers during the Stanley Cup playoffs — Fedotenko and forward Max Talbot — have combined for only 10 goals this season.

Ponikarovsky is one marker shy from doubling that total. He posted 19 goals and 41 points in 61 games with Toronto.

Malkin's old teammates know they need him to produce like the top-two point producer he was the past two seasons for the Penguins to defend their Stanley Cup championship.

His newest teammate figures getting Geno going is part of his new job.

"He has tremendous skill, speed and determination," Ponikarovsky said, "but everybody knows that. To play with this guy requires some commitment.

"I basically have to fit in and do my part, because when these two lines play their best, this team can do some great things."

One of the great things about Ponikarovsky's game is his commitment to defense. In fact, as a skilled forward that likes to back-check, his style is similar to former Penguins winger Marian Hossa, who helped improve the Penguins' offense and defense during his short stint on a line with Crosby in 2008.

"He's a guy who plays well away from the puck, is good down low on grinding shifts and getting to the net," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "Our pro scouts have watched him a lot, and they're calling him a motivated player right now with the way he's playing and the effort he gives out."

Ponikarovsky said he appreciated Bylsma's assessment of his skills, and he offered some words that might find favor with Malkin.

"It helps when you can speak Russian on the ice because it's our first language," he said. "It's not like I mind speaking English, but Russian players all come from the same schools and grow up playing as five-man units.

"I speak Geno's language. So does Ruslan. That can't hurt."

The Alexi Ponikarovsky file

Position: Left wing

Height, weight: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds

Shoots: Left

Age: 29

Statistics: 19 goals, 22 assists, 41 points and a plus-5 rating in 61 games with Toronto this season; 114 goals, 143 assists, 257 points and a plus-56 rating in 477 games with Toronto in his career.

Notable: Fourth-round choice (87th overall) by Toronto in 1998 NHL Entry Draft. ... In last months of three-year, $6.315 million contract he signed with Maple Leafs in May 2007. ... In Toronto, he earned the nickname "The Poni Express" from teammates. ... In 23 career playoff games, he has one goal and three assists. ... Last postseason appearance was in 2003-04.

Contract status: Can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

He said it: "Basically, there's always pressure on a player when he is traded, but it all comes down to working hard and being honest and paying that price. If I do that, everything will fall into place. I really am just focused on coming to Pittsburgh and having a good start and maybe a goal, that would be nice."

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