For Penguins star Malkin, Hart of the matter
Finally winning the Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's most valuable player, an honor for which Vladimir Malkin's youngest son has twice finished as runner-up, would “mean a lot.”
“But it is a lot of pressure,” the elder Malkin said through an interpreter. “Evgeni thinks if he wins MVP for the last year, he has to win it next year and the years after.”
Vladimir Malkin raised his right hand above his head and lowered his left hand to his chest. His eyes followed the top hand to the bottom.
“Very fast you can go from here to there,” he said.
The comeback story of Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who in September told the Tribune-Review his “motivation was very good” to again be considered an elite player, could end Wednesday night in Las Vegas at the NHL Awards Show, where he is favored to win the Hart.
His reputation already has been restored, though.
“Evgeni is a unique player,” said Vladislav Tretiak, Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender for the former Soviet Union. “He cannot be compared to anyone.”
Malkin, 25, is days from potentially joining Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby as Penguins to have won the Hart Trophy.
His competition is New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, but the MVP race was over long before the Penguins' played their final regular-season game.
When Malkin tallied 13 points in the final seven games before the All-Star break, Jesse Spector of The Sporting News, and a Hart voter, had seen enough.
“If it was a horse race, it wasn't quite the 1973 Belmont but only because the other guys raised their games,” said Spector, referring to Secretariat's 31-length victory. “Malkin got to a stratospheric level and stayed there for pretty much the entire season.”
Actually, lost among strong goal-scoring starts by center Jordan Staal and winger James Neal and the seemingly endless wait for Crosby's return was the early-season uneven play of Malkin, who in the second game aggravated a knee surgically repaired eight months earlier.
Malkin was at nine goals and 27 points after a home loss to Boston on Dec. 5, which marked the last game Crosby played until March. 15. Malkin registered 28 goals and 59 points over the next 40 games. He failed to post a point in only eight contests, and the Penguins went 26-13-1.
He had never looked stronger, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma suggested, not even during the 2009 playoff run to the Cup and Malkin's postseason MVP. This was proof that a summer commitment to improved fitness had paid dividends.
“Other guys have rehabbed and not come close to being at their same level,” Bylsma said. “He got back and in less than 12 months was the best player in the world.”
One performance from a standout season truly stood out.
Jan. 15, at Tampa Bay: Malkin turned a natural hat trick in the third period to give the Penguins consecutive wins for the first time in nearly three weeks.
Two days earlier the Penguins had won at Florida to snap a six-game skid. They were rolling at Tampa Bay until the Lightning erased a three-goal lead.
“I think if we had lost that (Tampa Bay) game, it would have been devastating,” Bylsma said.
Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis recalled a tense feeling on the bench.
“He looked at us on the bench and basically, without saying a word, said, ‘Follow me, boys, and buckle up,' ” Dupuis said. “You could just see that he was about to do something that only guys like him, the best players in the world, can do.”
Best in the world
The Penguins have fairly owned this category since 1988, when Lemieux won the franchise's first Hart. A Hart win by Malkin will give the Penguins a fourth player chosen as league MVP. Their three honorees are already the most of the post-1967 expansion era.
Malkin finished this past season with 109 points — and a career-best 50 goals — to join Lemieux and Jagr as the only Penguins players to win multiple scoring championships.
A Penguins player has won the Art Ross Trophy 14 times, and Malkin is the only two-time scoring champion since the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
“The hardware he's collected already is awesome, but maybe it gets taken for granted because the Penguins have had three other players do those things,” said Bob Grove, a Penguins broadcaster and the franchise historian.
Only 14 players have averaged at least 1.20 points per game during their career. Malkin, at 1.234, ranks 11th among that group. Players holding the second (Lemieux), fourth (Crosby), 12th (Jagr) and 13th (Alex Ovechkin) spots on that list have cast shadows that he cannot escape.
Malkin has offered more of his personality as his comfort with English, his third language, has improved since arriving here six years ago.
“I actually think he's more comfortable in the shadows than most great players would be,” said Eddie Johnston, who has spent most of the past three decades with the organization in some capacity.
Neal, whose first 40-goal season came with Malkin as his center, described Malkin as a rarity among elite players.
“His competitive nature is to be the best player in the league, the best player on the ice,” Neal said. “But he also doesn't care about being the big star or being on a billboard. He just wants to be himself.”
That means the same player who takes the first open seat on a charter bus after road games and quietly dives into an electronic book is also the practical joker who routinely targets teammate Matt Cooke. He commanded not a dollar less but also not a penny more than Crosby, behind whom he serves as first alternate captain for the Penguins — but Malkin also has consistently called the Penguins' “Sid's team.”
There is no simple read on Malkin, former teammate and NHL mentor Sergei Gonchar said.
Malkin could not be reached for comment. He has spent the past two weeks vacationing, his first significant time away from hockey-related activities in more than a year.
Nothing he has said suggests the Hart will complete him any more than the Ross, Conn Smythe or the MVP he won at World Championships for leading that tournament in scoring as Russia won gold.
Natalia Malkin, his mother, said she enjoys hearing her son mentioned “like Crosby, (as) maybe the best player.” However, she said nothing Evgeni Malkin accomplished this past season will leave him satisfied. Mama Malkin knows what her boy really wants isn't stature or individual hardware but simply more pictures to hang on his walls.
“Even at home,” she said, “the only pictures up are of the Stanley Cup.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.