Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Evgeni Malkin puts Penguins one win from the Cup

By Larry Wigge

Now you see him. Now you don't.

Evgeni Malkin has taken that magical mystery that some stars have -- you know the disappearing and reappearing in the nick of time for a great scoring opportunity.

Malkin parked himself at the side of the net and put his stick down for a target for Phil Kessel to hit on the Pittsburgh power play at 2:37 of the second period en route to a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks, rediscovering his scoring touch putting the Penguins one victory away from winning their second Stanley Cup championship in eight years.

A simple strong first pump was used for emphasis by Malkin.

With only one goal in his last 15 games -- and no points in the Stanley Cup final, Malkin's 10 career game-winning goals in the postseason rank third in Penguins history, trailing only Jaromir Jagr (14) and Mario Lemieux (11).

Malkin explained, "My goal is like Phil, give me empty net."

"Geno is a world-class player," said Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, who scored the first goal. "He's been going through a rough stretch, but contributing in ways other than on the scoresheet. Obviously you saw how good he is when he turns it on. When he contributes like that, it's huge for our team."

"I thought he was really good, not only because he got on the scoresheet," Sullivan said. "I thought his overall game was really good. He played at both ends of the rink and when he plays that way, he's so hard to defend. It seems like the puck follows him around.

"Geno wants to win. He's a competitive guy. He cares about this team. And he knows hes a big part of this team having success. He's a self-driven guy. He wants to be on the ice. He wants the puck in the crucial situations."

He contributed one goal and one assist in this game, giving the brilliant Russian five goals and 12 assists in 21 playoff games after he scored 27 goals and 31 assists in 57 regular-season games.

"I think he's one of the most exciting players I've seen in a long time," said Mark Messier. "I love his skill level. I love the amount of ice he covers. I love the way he forechecks. I just think he's a tremendous hockey player."

How good is Malkin? Dallas Stars Coach Lindy Ruff said, "He's a modern day Jaromir Jagr."

"They both have that big stride that makes them look like they aren't going as fast as they really are," says Boston Mark Recchi says in using the Jagr comparison as well. "But really, it's the agility and vision, too — it's the whole package."

"He's one of those guys who, when you're down by a goal, two goals or even four goals, they're not cashing it in. He has a great will to win," said former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, who is now with the New Jersey Devils. "Malkin can create things of nothing and he's got that attitude and desire to make plays and score goals, no matter what the score is."

Washington coach Barry Trotz offered this response to a question about Malkin: "He's like Alex. ... Everyone knows his talent, but when you throw in his size and toughness, it makes him just like Alex."

It's been a long way since Draft Day 2004, when Malkin was second only to Alex Ovechkin and English was new to him.

When pressed on the subject of language and which English words he knew, Malkin said, "Mother, father, brother ... and thank you."

"Clearly, hockey is an international language ... it's like love," laughed former Colorado Avalanche General Manager Pierre Lacroix on the draft floor in Raleigh, N.C., in 2004.

All kidding aside, that's comment by Lacroix is true ... to a point.

The fact of the matter is that it's true that there is a language in hockey that supersedes all tongues. Put the 50 best players in the world on the ice and come back a half hour later and you would see magic -- players making plays that would lift you out of your seat.

And though a scout's checklist usually begins with size and speed, skill and instincts, character and a passion for the game, the strengths and weaknesses of a prospect doesn't stop there. Not in a such a special team game like hockey, where split-second decisions and game plans are more than instinctual.

Language is an essential.

And, while it's still a work in progress for Malkin, he's clearly making his marvelous sense of humor and outgoing personality work for him with his teammates ... on and off the ice.

In the first 10 games after returning from Sochi in 2014, Malkin scored just one goal. So what finally helped Malkin snap back into form? Oh, just a conversation with a longtime friend.

"I wasn’t playing good after the Olympics. Talked a little bit with Sidney Crosby," Malkin said. "Sid helped me a lot because he understands my problem."

Crosby knows all too well about the pressure that comes with the weight of an entire country on your shoulders. Crosby helped Canada win the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics when the games were held in Vancouver, Canada. Crosby had the same pressure in Sochi as captain of Canada.

But the outcome was different for Crosby, who ended both tournaments in wearing gold.

"I can definitely relate to having pressure and expectations and I think Malkin puts a lot of pressure on himself," Crosby said. "You care about your teammates and you want to see them happy. You want to see them having fun out there. So I think that’s the important thing."

Malkin has topped the 100-point mark in scoring three times in 2008, '09 and 2012. And Crosby and Malkin have shared a Stanley Cup title in 2009.

"I was not scared to come to America," Malkin remembers. "I was scared what my friends would think of me. I love Russia. It is my country, my home. It was a tough time. But I had a dream, and that was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL."

The comment came a year ago. Same time, same place, Stanley Cup on the line. Then-Penguins Shero was admiring the development of Malkin as a player and person and he wondered what his big, strong, talented young center might look like in two or three years.

He made this observation, "A lack of English sometimes holds him back. But Geno has a great personality -- and it comes out more and more all the time."

A second later, Shero came up with the ultimate sound bite, "When you look at his play, you don't need audio. You just need video."

A retired Russian steelworker, Vladimir, Malkin's father, said parts of the Pittsburgh area ("Aliquippa, a lot") remind him of home, Magnitogorsk.

Vladimir and Natalia Malkin raised their two boys, and the humble slab of ice on an adjacent street where the father taught his sons to play a simple game after he came home from the factory, you can sense a certain resolve.

Evgeni didn't have to be encouraged. He had always been captivated by hockey. When he was a toddler, Natalia once visited his bed and saw him sleeping in a goalie mask. At 11, he broke his leg during the summer and was on crutches. Vladimir assumed that meant Evgeni would not play in the first hockey tournaments of the fall, and he was shocked when a friend asked him why he wasn't at the game that day to see Evgeni play.

That leads us to a funny little story that Malkin covets about Evgeni's first pair of skates.

"Yeah. I don't remember, but my father says that when I was little and I didn't have skates, he gave me his," Malkin recalls. "His size was way bigger than mine: I was five and he was 30 (he laughs). He gave me his speedskates and I tried them and I remember they were huge. My feet were moving inside. After that they bought me new ones."

He is asked, you make skating look easy.

"No, it's not easy (he laughs once again)," Malking said. "It's all practice. You work hard on your game, so sometimes it looks easy, but it's not."

We see skill. We see grace. We see size and speed. And we wonder how much more there is to come.

"One Cup," Malkin said of 2009. “I think it's a good career for me. Just good. It's not great. The great thing for me is to win Cup No. 2.”

Evgeni Malkin. One Hart Trophy (MVP), two Art Ross (scoring titles, 2008 and 2012) and now just one win away from two Stanley Cup titles (2009, 2016).

Clearly, hockey is an international language ... it's like love and Malkin's making the most of it.

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