Even after his milestone moment, Evgeni Malkin expression was more of relief than reward, more exasperation than celebration.
Scoring the 1,000th point of his NHL career had become more burdensome than anything for the Pittsburgh Penguins center, who prefers to play in the shadows instead of the spotlight but was a shining star in the 5-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night.
“I feel overwhelmed, like, ‘Finally,’ ” Malkin said. “These last couple weeks, I was a little bit nervous. Finally, over 1,000 and I can breathe normally.”
Although it wasn’t pretty, there was something poetic about the way Malkin made history. He entered the game Tuesday night with 998 points, so Malkin and the Penguins were trying to get two points against their first-place Metropolitan Division nemesis.
The importance of the opponent should be underscored. For all of his magical play, Malkin has been something of a mystery to the hockey world, his career overshadowed by two superstar contemporaries. One is his teammate, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the other his countryman and counterpart, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin.
“He doesn’t get the credit that he deserves outside of Pittsburgh in the hockey world,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has been one of the elite players in this league for a decade-plus, and he deserves more attention for that. His body of work speaks for itself, with what he’s accomplished.”
Even though Malkin has won three Stanley Cup championships and a treasure trove of trophies — from Conn Smythe to Hart to Art Ross (twice) to Calder to the Ted Lindsay Award — it’s an insult he wasn’t named one the NHL’s top 100 players of all time.
“That top-100 player thing, that was pretty outrageous, in my opinion, that he wasn’t part of that,” said Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who spent his first 11 NHL seasons with the Penguins. “He’ll say he doesn’t care. I’m sure he cares a little bit about that kind of stuff. I know the guys who’ve always played him appreciate what he does.”
Ovechkin has reigned as Russia’s greatest star, so it only made sense that his closing in on 1,200 points coincided with Malkin going for his 1,000th. This time, Malkin overshadowed Ovechkin while joining him, Sergei Fedorov (1,179), Alexander Mogilny (1,032) and Alexei Kovalev (1,029) as the fifth Russian to crack the NHL 1,000-point mark.
Never mind both points came on secondary assists. More important is both came on the power play, which Sullivan had tried to jolt by moving Malkin and Phil Kessel to the second unit Sunday against Boston and to start the game against Washington.
The first assist helped set up the tying goal, as Malkin passed from the high slot to the goal line, where Kessel fed Crosby in the right circle to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead at 14:25 of the second period.
Malkin scored his 1,000th point on what proved to be the winner, passing from the right circle to defenseman Justin Schultz for a slap shot from center point that Kessel poked in on the rebound at 11:56 of the third. When the goal horn sounded, the PPG Paints Arena crowd responded with a roaring ovation. Malkin got a group hug from his teammates.
“I don’t know if he thought I might have touched that,” Crosby said. “I’m just glad that I didn’t, and he got that. It’s a special moment. You don’t see that happen very often. To be teammates this long and to be on the ice when he got it was just really special.”
What was really special is Crosby has factored into 303 points with Malkin, the most of any teammate, and Kessel ranks second with 151 points. They are the Penguins with whom Malkin forever will be associated, especially Kessel as a linemate. They have shared struggles this season, so it was fitting they got to share this memory.
“He wants that,” Malkin said. “We talked before and he said, ‘I hope I score your 1,000th point.’ He’s unbelievable. It’s special for him, too. We’ve played a long time together. It’s not an easy year for him, too. We try to play better every game. I’m glad he scored and gave me a chance to get 1,000 points.
“It’s a huge goal for him and huge point for me.”
This is the biggest point for Malkin: Reaching the milestone should allow him to stop pressing and start playing the way he can, with highlight-reel plays that make opponents marvel at his talent and a touch envious of his effortless approach to making it appear so easy.
“Now I hope I breathe normally, am able to relax and play a little bit better,” said Malkin, who has 21 goals and 70 points this season. “It’s been a tough year for me, but every game the team plays better and I feel like my game gets back. I feel so much better every night. My confidence is back.”
So is his scoring touch. His two points led the Penguins to two points on a night when Malkin escaped the shadows and shined in the spotlight, when he wasn’t the biggest-name superstar but was deserving of the first star. Crosby had a two-goal game, Ovechkin scored his 1,200th point.
But this night belonged to Malkin.