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Evgeni Malkin thrives as one of most-seasoned Penguins

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, 10:10 p.m.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin during the first practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin during the first practice Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

A funny thing happened during the Penguins offseason. In the blink of an eye, Evgeni Malkin became one of the oldest guys in the locker room.

After a series of free-agent departures, only four players in camp — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton captain Tom Kostopoulos (38), tryout center Jay McClement (34), backup goalie Antti Niemi (34) and newly signed defenseman Matt Hunwick (32) — are older than the 31-year-old Russian superstar.

On one hand, it's a situation Malkin embraces.

Citing his old age, Malkin took a moment Saturday to lobby coach Mike Sullivan for an easier practice schedule this season.

“We had two short summers. We need to be smart,” Malkin said with a gleam in his eye. “Maybe short practice and a little bit more rest. Coach will change a little bit maybe. I don't know. Maybe a couple day offs?”

Beyond that tongue-in-cheek plea, Malkin showed no signs of aging on the second day of training camp in Cranberry.

In the intrasquad scrimmage, he scored a goal on a nasty shot from close range, set up Phil Kessel for the tying goal in the final minute of regulation and was the only player to hit paydirt in the tie-breaking shootout.

Afterward, he talked of a competitive fire that back-to-back championships has not extinguished.

“We're still hungry. We want to win again,” Malkin said. “It's more fun when you win. It's an unbelievable summer when you have the Cup with your family and friends. It's an amazing day. We understand how fun it is to be champions.”

Hampered over the past two seasons by injuries to his elbow and shoulder, Malkin hasn't played more than 69 games in a season since 2011-12.

Citing similar games-lost numbers, Penguins management suggested Kris Letang consider toning down his style at times to try to maintain his health.

Sullivan clarified Saturday what he is asking Letang to do.

“We love Tanger because of how he plays this game,” Sullivan said. “He's a brave guy. He's a courageous guy. He's willing to take hits to make plays, and that's not going to change. What we're trying to work with Tanger is just recognizing situations where there really aren't plays to be made. Sometimes you've just got to cut your losses and live to fight another day.”

Sullivan said he doesn't have a similar conversation planned with Malkin.

“Listen, this is a violent game sometimes,” Sullivan said. “When you play the game the right way, there's an inherent risk in how you play. These guys, they play the game hard. They play the game in the battle areas. There's body contact. That's just part of the game. I'm not going to ask Geno to change the way he plays at all. I think that's why he's as good as he is.”

That's perfectly fine with Malkin, who doesn't sound like he has even considered playing a more leisurely style.

“I'm old. I need to protect my body,” Malkin conceded. “But when you play, it's not like you're always thinking. It's automatic. You go into the corner, you don't think too much. You just play. Sometimes it's luck. Your skate gets stuck in the boards, or you fell down and cracked your head. But it's hockey. We're all tough here, tough players. Injuries are bad luck sometimes.”

The Penguins acquired heavyweight Ryan Reaves at the NHL draft, in part, to protect Malkin from some of the extracurricular physical abuse he's taken in recent years.

It's a gesture Malkin responded to with a thanks-but-no-thanks tone.

“Big muscles for him,” Malkin said with a laugh before turning more serious. “We're not feeling like every game he's protecting us. I can protect myself. I'm ready to play a hard game against Philly or Columbus. I want him to play his game. He's a good player. I see he scored a couple of beauty goals. We (want him to) score goals, not fight.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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