PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin didn’t have to say very much during these playoffs to make a statement.
The reluctant superstar put together the most productive spring in more than a decade, racking up a playoff-best 36 points and helping lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup. That earned Malkin the Conn Smythe Trophy on Friday night, making him the first Russian ever to be named playoff MVP. In fact, he’s just the third European following Henrik Zetterberg last year and Nicklas Lidstrom in 2002.
Other than brief on-ice interviews with CBC and the NHL Network, he didn’t speak to reporters in English after receiving the trophy.
“Big day in my life,” Malkin said while his teammates paraded around with the Stanley Cup. “My friends are happy, I’m happy.”
One year after fading in the playoffs, Malkin was at his best in the final two rounds.
He had eight goals and 17 points over the final 11 games as the Penguins swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final before beating the Detroit Red Wings in a seven-game Stanley Cup thriller.
As a result, he fulfilled his dream of having a picture taken with Sidney Crosby and the NHL’s championship trophy – a photo similar to the one featuring Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr from the franchise’s last championship in 1992.
“I think about it a lot, especially these last (two) weeks,” he said before Game 7. “It’s my dream. Me and Sid, just like that.”
Any way you look at it, Malkin had a stellar season.
He’s the first player since Lemieux in 1992 to take home both the regular season and playoff scoring titles. He’s also a finalist for the Hart Trophy at next week’s awards show in Las Vegas.
Essentially, the only thing keeping him from being a bigger star is his reluctance to conduct interviews in English.
Malkin only came to the podium for one interview session during the Stanley Cup final, but he made a lasting impression during that visit. Sitting alongside linemate Max Talbot, he joked that his teammate had “bad hands” and could only score into empty nets. The room erupted in laughter.
In fitting fashion, it was Talbot’s two goals that lifted the Penguins to victory.
“Hey, I still have bad hands,” said Talbot. “These two goals don’t improve my stickhandling skills. Like Geno said, I still have to work on it during the summer.”
On the ice, Malkin was just as impressive. He had two hat tricks during this playoff run and scored arguably the nicest goal this spring, coming out from behind the net and backhanding a shot over Cam Ward’s shoulder in the third round.
The praise for his strong finish provides a stark contrast to the criticism he received at the end of last season. He was a ghost in the final two rounds then, registering just five points over the final 10 games.
Teammates saw a big difference this time around.
“I think people lose sight of how young some of these guys are on the team,” said Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik. “Like him (Malkin), Jordan (Staal), Sid. They’re still so young. So much pressure is put on these guys.
“It was (Malkin’s) first time playing that long. I don’t think his body was really physically ready for it. I think he’s done a lot better job off the ice preparing his body for this time of the year.”
Needless to say, the preparation paid off.
Malkin had the most points in any playoff season since Wayne Gretzky put up 40 in 1993.