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All-star Malkin, told not to try to replace Crosby, is doing that

PITTSBURGH - Only a few hours after Sidney Crosby was lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins for up to two months with an ankle injury, coach Michel Therrien delivered a message to Evgeni Malkin.

Despite the language barrier - Therrien's native language is French, Malkin's is Russian - the intent of the coach's instructions to his other young scoring star was clear.

Malkin, for all his speed, puckhandling skills and shooting ability, should not take on the added burden of attempting to make up for Crosby's missing production by trying to do too much by himself.

Malkin listened intently and understood what his coach was saying. Then he went out and effectively disregarded everything that was said.

"We've lost our best player," Malkin said. "It's not just me, everybody has to keep up (with him) with every game."

So far, only Malkin has done that. Since Crosby sustained a high ankle sprain Jan. 18 against Tampa Bay, Malkin - last season's NHL rookie of the year - has responded with several of the best games of his career.

Statistics alone don't reflect his impact, but Malkin had four goals and one assist in a victory against Montreal, a shootout loss to Washington and a loss at Philadelphia. He was easily the Penguins' best player on the ice in all three games, not only creating offence but playing with more commitment and concentration on defence.

"When things are more desperate, when he knows he's being depended on a little more, he's got that extra jump," Crosby said. "He just has to play the same way."

Crosby will miss Sunday's NHL all-star game in Atlanta due to the first major injury of his career, but his absence means Malkin gets to play. Several of their teammates say it's a deserved honour, one Malkin should have received even if Crosby was healthy.

While Crosby is the youthful face of the NHL, and the Penguins, the 21-year-old Malkin has played equally well for lengthy stretches this season. Malkin has 27 goals, seven more than Crosby, and 57 points, or six fewer than Crosby's 63.

On Monday, Malkin played one of the best games by any Penguins player since Mario Lemieux's retirement in 2006 - Crosby included - when he had two goals and an assist against Washington.

During a frantic 12-minute stretch during the end of the first period and the start of the second, Malkin and Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin made a series of can-you-top-this plays while setting up or scoring a combined five goals.

"It was a great show by two young superstars trying to be the king of the hill," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Even if no one with the Penguins will say it, that is exactly what they need Malkin to be until Crosby returns, which might not be until fairly late in the season. Pittsburgh heads into the all-star break with a 27-18-4 record and 58 points, one fewer than Atlantic Division co-leaders New Jersey and Philadelphia but only four points out of last place.

Obviously, what the Penguins do without Crosby may very well determine whether they make the playoffs for the second successive season. The Penguins are 1-3-3 in seven games with Crosby out of the lineup the last three seasons.

However, few teams have a Malkin-like player to plug into its top line at centre when a player is injured. Malkin has been surging for about a month, with 16 goals in 16 games and seven goals in his last five games.

Malkin, then a teenager, was the top player on his team in Russia's top pro league before joining the Penguins in 2006. He understands what he needs to do as his team's most counted-upon player.

"A lot of times when he played in Russia, he was the go-to guy, and I think he's used to the pressure that comes with that," Crosby said. "Hopefully, it's not something where he has to put it all on his shoulders. I don't think he can do that - nobody can do that."

Malkin agrees.

"We have to play as a team at our best every night," he said.


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