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Starkey: Malkin returns to form

| Thursday, May 7, 2009

Contrary to popular belief, Evgeni Malkin played pretty well in Game 2 of this Eastern Conference semifinal, so it was understandable that teammates defended him against a barrage of criticism.

But even they knew the truth: Pretty well isn't nearly good enough for Malkin, who was the best player on the ice in Game 3 Wednesday night — a season-saving, 3-2 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals.

Best player in the world?

Oh, you better believe Malkin belongs in that conversation — along with Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby — and if he maintains this rarified level of play, the Penguins will have a great chance to win the series.

"I know I played not good the last two games," said Malkin, who had a game-high nine shots and snapped a 1-1 tie in the third period with a gorgeous wrist shot from the high slot. "Big game tonight."

Big game, indeed. Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik sensed Malkin was ready early in the day, as the latter watched his Russian countrymen battle from behind to beat Belarus in the World Championships in Switzerland.

"Probably the biggest smile he's had on his face in a week," Orpik said. "He got pretty excited there, so we were hoping there would be a carryover to the game."

Orpik thought Malkin was trying to do too much the first two games. At times, that was obvious. Maybe part of it was Malkin attempting to measure up to the marquee names in the series — Ovechkin and Crosby.

Winning is the prime motivation for all three, of course, but nobody had to tell "Geno" — Malkin's nickname — that after two games, the goal tally looked like this:

Ovechkin and Crosby: eight.

Malkin: zero.

"He hears everyone being critical of his performance," Orpik said.

"He's a competitor," said Malkin's new full-time linemate, Max Talbot. "All these players — Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin — they want to prove to everyone that they're the best, and that's definitely what Geno wanted to do tonight."

Even while defending him, Malkin's teammates knew he wasn't himself in the first two games.

"I think (Malkin is) so competitive and has so much pride, sometimes he presses too much," Orpik said. "It's not his effort, it's just probably a case of him overthinking sometimes."

Credit Penguins fans with an assist last night. They were loudly supportive of Malkin even before the game, chanting "Gee-no!" when he was announced as a starter.

"The fans helped me," he said.

You know Malkin is at the top of his game when he is galloping through the neutral zone and generating prime chances on the rush. He did that all night, putting on a Mario Lemieux-like performance. He slid the puck between his skates on his way to the goal. He blasted shots from all angles. He drew penalties. He crashed the net with reckless abandon.

It was a richly deserved win, by the way.

The Penguins didn't record their second shot until 7:44 remained in the opening period but finished with a 42-23 advantage. They dominated for long stretches, skating with the same type of urgency they'd shown in Game 3 of last year's Stanley Cup final.

All four lines played a high-energy, intelligent, physical game, though the Penguins again had a terrible time with the Capitals' fabulous rookie goaltender, Simeon Varlamov.

As overtime wore on, all those white T-shirts in the crowd were matched only by all the white knuckles. Finally, at 11:23, second-year defenseman Kris Letang blasted home the game-winner on a deflection.

That made Letang, who battled through an injury, a deserving hero. But the fact that Malkin announced his large and luminous presence in the series was the second-biggest story of night.

"He had a real bounce-back game," Penguins winger Bill Guerin said. "It says a lot about the type of character he's got. We need him to be like that."

Do they ever.

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