PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Perhaps only the Pittsburgh Penguins could have so creatively answered this seemingly unsolvable in-season puzzle: How do you replace the best player in hockey?
With Sidney Crosby shelved yet again for an undetermined period, the Penguins could have chosen to swing a complex trade, make a dramatic adjustment to their style of play or simply ride out the layoff and wait until next season.
Instead, they went with a much simpler solution: Give a healthy Evgeni Malkin the puck as much as possible, get out of his way and allow him to produce at a Crosby-like level as they wait to learn when their captain will play again.
They’ve replaced the best player in hockey a year ago with what arguably is the best player in hockey today.
“He’s gigantic,” an admiring Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher said after Malkin lit up his team for five goals in two games. “He’s just a monster out there that can skate, sees everything. He can put the puck inside out, inside of your pants and out. He just has it all.”
In Pittsburgh, a fortunate city that has been flush with premium on-ice talent for nearly 30 years (Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Mark Recchi, Jaromir Jagr, Crosby and Malkin), they’re calling it Malkinmania. It’s the maturation of what already was a star into a more polished superstar who’s still only 25.
“Of course, I feel great,” Malkin said.
That Malkin is scoring at a furious pace—17 goals in his last 17 games—isn’t a total surprise. The one-time Russian prodigy was good enough as Crosby’s supposed sidekick in 2009 to not only win the Art Ross Trophy, but to earn the Conn Smythe Award for the Stanley Cup champions.
If Crosby was the NHL’s No. 1 star, Malkin was No. 1-A.
But Malkin wasn’t so visible the last two seasons; he had a career-low 15 goals in 43 games before a serious knee injury ended his 2010-11 season in early February.
Forced to work harder than ever in the off-season just to play again, Malkin became more driven, more committed to his craft. As several teammates said, being merely good wasn’t nearly good enough for him.
“I think sitting down for almost half a year, he missed playing,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “He came out this season in shape, ready to go. You could see in his eyes that he was pretty confident.”
After getting three goals and four assists in a pair of weekend games against Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, Malkin leads the NHL with 69 points (32 goals, 37 assists) in 49 games, and is a plus-11. He is on pace for a career-high 49 goals.
And since Crosby went out on Dec. 5 with concussion-like symptoms for the second time this season, Malkin has had three five-point games, has produced goals in 13 of his last 17 games, and has scored at least one goal in eight consecutive home games.
His linemates are thriving, too; James Neal is fourth in the league with 29 goals, including eight in his last 14 games, and Kunitz matched Malkin with seven points against Winnipeg and Tampa Bay.
“We talked, and we just want to move the puck,” Malkin said of the Penguins’ No. 1 line. “Just moving the puck, it’s easy (to) play, (there’s) more offensive zone (time) and (time to) skate and shoot the puck.”
After watching Malkin weave effortlessly through traffic, making exceptional passes and taking spin-a-rama shots, Boucher invoked comparisons to a Penguins megastar other than Crosby.
“He looks like Mario Lemieux out there, just dangling it and doing whatever he wants to do,” Boucher said. “It’s very, very difficult when a guy is in the zone like that. You can play perfectly and, all of a sudden, just one tiny mistake and he gives it to you.”
Or much like Crosby did a season ago during a 25-game scoring streak that preceded his season-ending concussion in early January.
“When Sid was going on his streak last year, it was kind of the same thing. It opens up ice for everybody else,” Kunitz said. “Every time Geno’s on the ice it feels like he’s got a chance to score a goal or make a play.”
Malkin also dazzled in 2008 when Crosby was sidelined for seven weeks with a high ankle sprain, piling up 36 points in 21 games. But, as defenceman Kris Letang said, “His game is better than it was (then). This is the first time I’ve seen him being that dominant.”
What has changed in four years?
“He goes in tougher areas,” said Letang. “He doesn’t have any trouble going to the net. You see his goals, he’s always driving in the tough areas on the ice. He’s battling on the walls. He’s playing a great game.”
Call it theCrosby Influence; Malkin’s game now encompasses elements that were displayed previously only by Pittsburgh’s other star in residence.
The Penguins (32-19-5) are piling up the points as quickly as Malkin is, too; they’re 8-2-1 in their last 11 games. They’ve won their last six at home despite trailing in each game, falling behind 2-0 three times and 4-1 once.
Now that Letang (21 games, concussion) and Jordan Staal (15 games, left knee injury) have returned from extended layoffs, Crosby is all that’s missing from a team that will be disappointed if it’s not playing well into the spring.
“Geno is playing his best, the power play is scoring a goal almost every night,” Letang said. “So points are coming our way.”
Two games into a stretch in which they play 10 of 14 at home, with 10 games against teams that would not currently make the playoffs, the Penguins can only wonder how much better they would be if Crosby were playing, too.