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Dedication paying off for Pens' Evgeni Malkin

| Sunday, April 8, 2012

Evgeni Malkin is an acknowledged cheater.

As a teenager, his mom said, Malkin would complain of a sore arm and quit tennis matches against his brother late in a decisive set when defeat seemed imminent.

Since joining teammates' card games on Penguins charter flights, he has bullied his way to wins. All is well if Malkin plays the proper hand, but somebody is at fault if he does not and teammates concede defeat rather than deal with his sharp jabs or sleight-of-hand deals, winger Matt Cooke said.

The surest sign of Malkin's willingness to put himself over, at least in the opinion of his dad, are the nights when he sabotages his girlfriend during games of Narde, a two-player board game similar to backgammon.

"If I lose, I hate everyone, everywhere," Malkin said Thursday night after he scored a goal and recorded an assist in a home win over the New York Rangers his sixth goal and eighth point in six games against the club with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

To be clear: Malkin is cool with cheating if it means not losing.

"Always," he said, flashing a grin, "and sometimes it's the same in hockey. You stay near the blueline, and the coach gets mad, but sometimes if you want to win you need a little bit to cheat."

This season has proven to be an ironic exception to that rule.

Malkin, 25 and in his seventh NHL campaign, won a second scoring title with 50 goals and 109 points and is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy (MVP) for which he twice has finished runner-up by refusing to cheat on a commitment to fitness he made about a year ago while rehabbing an injured right knee that forced him to watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He has not skimped on the daily workouts that involve plyometric circuits, core compulsions, lung-burning cardio, kettle bells and traditional weights. What he started in July in Moscow with Penguins strength coach Mike Kadar continued through a postgame session Saturday.

Staying in supreme shape so that teammates could count on him to consistently produce not becoming only third Penguins player to lead the league in scoring more than once is what Malkin said he is most proud of this season.

That is a very Sidney Crosby-like thought, and it should not surprise anybody that Malkin expressed it.

"Geno is like Sid in the sense that he leads by example," Kadar said. "Also, if there is something in front of him, he wants to win at it.

"If you'd look at the stuff we did in the gym over the summer, it was always him wanting one more rep than the guy he was working with, but once we were done with the workouts, it was him back to being laid back and laughing. He's really funny in those spots, but when there is a competition, he gets serious. You can actually see the difference on his face.

"I think he knew he had to step up this season because we weren't sure about Sid's health."

Motivating factors

Concussion symptoms cast most of Crosby's season in doubt, but Malkin felt, coming off two below-standard seasons, he had a doubting public to convince he remained an elite player and that he could do that best by leading the Penguins in their captain's absence.

Malkin was named the NHL's top rookie in 2007, and in each of the next two seasons he topped the 100-point plateau. The Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and won the Cup in 2009, and Malkin was the playoff MVP that year for producing 36 points most by a player in the postseason since Wayne Gretzky in 1993.

"For good reason people talked about him being the best player in the world," said Craig Button, an NHL Network analyst and general manager of the Calgary Flames from 2000-03. "You watched Geno play and thought, 'He can just do things physically that other players can't.' "

In two seasons before this return to form, Malkin stopped doing those things consistently. He produced 43 goals and 114 points in 111 games from 2009-11, his production limited by injuries (shoulder, hand and knee) but also because he did not prepare physically or mentally to stay on top, former Penguins teammate and current Rangers winger Ruslan Fedotenko said.

While rehabbing torn knee ligaments last spring, Malkin picked up on a narrative that struck at his core: Fans and the media talked about Crosby returning for the playoffs to help the Penguins. Nobody talked much about Malkin coming back.

As he pushed to return for a possible second-round series, Malkin decided the rest of his career would be about restoring his reputation.

"I (did) not believe it, but most people (thought) I can't play to my level from 2008 and when we (won the) Stanley Cup," he said. "I knew I could. I just tried to stay positive the whole year."

'Being Geno'

That approach was crucial in October, when his surgically repaired right knee was slightly tweaked and forced him to miss seven games. By the time of Crosby's first comeback Nov. 21, Malkin had scored only five goals and produced just 14 points in 13 games.

Crosby played in eight games from Nov. 21-Dec. 5, and Malkin surged with four goals and 10 points but it was during the next 40 contests that he made his MVP push. He produced 29 goals and 60 points in those games without Crosby, collecting three five-point performances and multiple points in 13 games.

Equally noticeable to teammates was the willingness to handle captain-like duties such as speaking with the media and setting a tone at and away from the rink.

He managed the latter, winger James Neal said, but "just being Geno" and everybody has their own idea of what that entails.

Cooke: "Any opportunity he can to bring up a situation that was funny, just to rehash it for a few laughs, he's going to do it."

Neal recalled a game when Malkin fed him for a backdoor tap-in goal and immediately started nagging him.

"First thing he said was, 'I'm open for pass back,' " Neal said. "He's always open, that's for sure. Geno always tells you he was open."

The pregame tradition of two-touch soccer contests players must kick the ball twice in the air when it comes to them provided Malkin opportunities to serve as both a ball hog, wing Chris Kunitz said, and a cut up, wing Pascal Dupuis said.

"Oh, he's a bully when we play soccer, always picking in a funny way at guys," Dupuis said. "He'll try to get reactions to throw you off so he can win. He was all over me about my points streak. He wants a reaction. He'll just keep picking until he gets it."

Malkin scored a reaction from nearly everybody who attended the unveiling of the Mario Lemieux statue last month. Sitting in the front row, he dressed head to toe in denim a look perfect for Pittsburgh in the early 1980s.

"To us sometimes he looks a little different, but to him he looks nice," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said, adding the all-denim attire was not Malkin's most curious fashion decision.

"He has this royal blue I think it's leather jacket, and it's pretty tight. That's the worst."

Defenseman Brooks Orpik, once Malkin's traveling roommate, said Malkin understands North American culture better now and is more comfortable showing his true personality. He always has had a natural leadership style, albeit one that is not in the traditional fiery, rally-cry mold, Orpik said.

Crosby, no stranger to having his personality placed under a microscope, said growing into a leadership role is a "matter of being comfortable with yourself."

"Geno is," Crosby said. "He has that smile on his face and is at ease with everything going on."

Defining satisfaction

Malkin admitted he is more serious than ever about leading, though he stressed the Penguins are "Sid's team."

Still, Malkin has become the center with set linemates in Kunitz and Neal against whom most coaches devise their attack plan.

He has accomplished much this season, including becoming only the seventh player to win multiple scoring titles in the NHL's post-expansion (1967) era, but Malkin said he would not feel satisfied with the season if it ends early in the playoffs.

For this reason he is comfortable with the "bully" tag if it means another Cup run.

"It's my personality. I hate to lose," he said. "Maybe I'm a big bully, but it's good to be (the) big bully if it helps us win the Cup."

Additional Information:

Do it again

The seven players to win multiple Art Ross Trophies as NHL scoring leader since the 1967 expansion:

Phil Esposito, Bruins 1969, 1971-74

Bobby Orr, Bruins 1970, 1975

Guy Lafleur, Canadiens 1976-78

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers Kings 1981-87, 1990-91, 1994

Mario Lemieux, Penguins 1988-89, 1992-93, 1996-97

Jaromir Jagr, Penguins 1995, 1998-2001

Evgeni Malkin, Penguins 2009, 2012

Source: NHL

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