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Penguins' Malkin keeping his critics quiet

| Tuesday, May 26, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. — 'Geno' has business to finish.

"Of course," Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said Monday from an arena-level hallway at RBC Center, where tonight his club can retain its Prince of Wales Trophy by completing a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final.

"I don't want to think about the (Stanley Cup) final because we need one more win, we have to play one more game. But, yeah."

Those words came exactly one year after a bout of ill-timed honesty dented Malkin's reputation like, well, an Evgeni Malkin slap shot.

Standing in a visitor dressing-room doorway at Joe Louis Arena on May 25, 2008 — an off-day between Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup final — Malkin bared his anguished soul to the Tribune-Review.

"I'm just tired," he said. "Practice is long. The season is long. I feel bad."

Game 1 of the 2008 Cup final, Malkin's fourth of six playoff games without a point, marked his 97th game — by far the most he had played at any level in a single season. That admission of exhaustion may have been forgiven had Malkin not also added, "Mentally, I need a change."

Specifically, Malkin wanted no part of playing the left point on the Penguins' top power-play unit.

"I feel bad there," he said. "It's not good — playing defense. It's not good for me everywhere else."

That acknowledgment proved prophetic. Malkin finished the 2008 Cup final with only a goal and an assist, and the Penguins lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings.

A leading playoff-MVP candidate with eight goals and 17 points through two-and-a-half rounds, Malkin scored only twice and produced just five points over his final nine 2008 postseason games — good enough for 22 playoff points, fifth among all scorers, but not enough to return the Cup to Pittsburgh for a third time.

One year later, Malkin is intensely focused on winning the Cup, perhaps because he realizes it can silence critics across North America — including Pittsburgh — who three weeks ago wrote and spoke of him as a postseason underachiever.

"I did not like it — all the talk, everybody saying I did bad," Malkin said of his five-game playoff stretch without a goal from April 21-May 4. "I picked up my play. The way I play now is good.

"I think for everybody it's, maybe, shut up guys!"

Malkin delivered a wide grin after that line, but his stat line over the past eight games says everything about his role in the Penguins' seven victories over that span. He has scored eight goals and recorded 17 points to pass teammate Sidney Crosby for the playoff scoring lead, 28-26.

Malkin had either scored or assisted on a tying or winning goal in the Penguins' past five games. Two of his East-final leading six goals are winners, and his nine points are five more than any other player has totaled in the best-of-seven series.

A day after Malkin's hat trick in Game 2 at Mellon Arena, Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason on Friday assured reporters that Malkin was "not God."

The next night, Malkin scored two first-period goals — the first erasing a 1-0 deficit, the second to provide a two-goal cushion — as the Penguins reduced the Hurricanes to barely a misty breeze with a 6-2 victory in Game 3.

The Penguins' power play has clicked at 25 percent (3-for-12) in the series. Its success rate since Malkin was moved permanently off the left point in the second round is 29.3 percent (12-for-41) over nine games, providing a goal in eight contests.

"It seems like his comfort level is a little higher on the half-boards," Penguins defenseman, power-play quarterback and Malkin confidant Sergei Gonchar said.

Malkin agreed, saying he is "not nervous" — though clearly he has made the Hurricanes uncomfortable with that feeling.

After their practice yesterday, Carolina players detailed their plan to derail Malkin's steam-engine might, but they hardly sounded convincing.

"You've just got to finish him every chance you get," Carolina winger Chad LaRose said. "I don't think players like that."

A warning, Hurricanes: Malkin is intent on asserting himself even more tonight.

"Lots of hits on shifts — that makes for a good game," he said.

Malkin added that his objective is to "shoot every shift and play physical" tonight, because...

"I need to be focused for 60 minutes," he said. "It's one game. It's one win."

Then, it's onto unfinished business.

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