Malkin's impassioned play vaults him among NHL MVP contenders
LOS ANGELES — Assistant coach Rick Tocchet played with Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr.
He knows the look. And he knows Evgeni Malkin has that look in his eyes right now.
Malkin is playing some of the most inspired hockey of his career in recent weeks and might be willing himself into Hart Trophy discussion as the Penguins continue their California swing.
“You see it when he comes off the ice,” Tocchet said. “He wants right back out there. He lets us know. He just has that look in his eye when he comes off the ice. It's nice when your star players want the puck like that.”
Malkin entered Saturday's game in Los Angeles tied for the NHL scoring lead with Washington stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, along with Islanders standout John Tavares.
All of those players have participated in at least six more games than Malkin, yet their names are more associated with this season's Hart Trophy award.
Bovada, an online gambling site that has become a fixture in determining NHL odds, didn't list Malkin among its top 10 MVP candidates when the latest odds were revealed earlier in the week. He leads the NHL in points per game at 1.14.
“I don't get a chance to see all the great players around the league that often,” right wing Craig Adams said. “But I can't imagine many players are better than he is right now.”
Three pieces of evidence give Malkin an legitimate MVP case.
Play down the stretch
When the Penguins have needed him most, Malkin has responded. The Penguins underwent major soul-searching following a Feb. 19 loss at home to Columbus. Even a spot in the playoffs seemed less than certain after that setback.
Since then, the Penguins are 5-1. In those six games, Malkin has produced six goals and seven assists. He's a plus-6 in that stretch, and his defensive work has been as impressive as his production.
“You see him stealing the puck three or four times a game,” Adams said. “That's when you know he's locked in.”
Malkin's steady scoring all season has been among his finest attributes. Ovechkin, considered a leading candidate to claim his fourth career MVP, has been held without a point in 27 games this season. Sidney Crosby, normally a pillar of consistency, has been held without a point in 25 games.
Backstrom (25 games) and Tavares (22 games) also have endured cold stretches. Malkin has been held without a point in 16 contests.
Plus, Malkin is putting up these numbers without the aid of all-star linemates. He's skated most of the season with Blake Comeau, who has one 20-goal season on his resume. On his left side is Chris Kunitz, who remains reliable but whose production has started to drop. Ovechkin and Backstrom play together.
“He's just outstanding right now,” Comeau said. “He's doing special things with the puck.”
The ability to adapt
Penalties are being called at a historically low rate. Pretty goals are becoming a thing of the past as defenders are receiving more latitude to impede star players.
Malkin has adapted, doing the dirty work on the boards and in front of the net.
“This is my first year coaching him, and what has jumped out at me is how tenacious he is in the corners,” Tocchet said.
“I didn't know he was that good in the corners. He's the best corner man on our team. I thought Jagr was great in the corners, but it's unreal what Geno is doing. You just can't get the puck away from him. That's the kind of hockey that wins in the playoffs.”
Perhaps it's also the kind of hockey that wins MVP awards.
Even if the rest of the league hasn't noticed, Malkin's teammates have.
“Oh my God,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “I've played with him two games now, and wow. The things he can do are absolutely scary. He's really great right now.”