By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
OTTAWA — The only appearance Sidney Crosby made at the NHL All-Star Game was on the scoreboard screens. During a break Sunday at Scotiabank Place, there he was in a Gatorade commercial. The slogan? "Prime. Perform. Recover."
That last part, of course, can be tricky.
The news that Crosby had a neck injury along with a concussion overshadowed this marketing event, along with other doom-and-gloom stuff like the future of the Phoenix Coyotes, the financial problems of the New Jersey Devils and the looming labor negotiations.
But if there is a silver lining, it is this: Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins don't have the best player in hockey, they still have the best player in hockey.
His name is Evgeni Malkin.
Remember him? He once won a scoring title and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. He finished second for the Hart Trophy as the regular-season MVP in back-to-back years.
He's healthy for the first time since 2009, seems more comfortable in the spotlight and right now is the favorite to win another scoring title and his first Hart Trophy. He leads the NHL in scoring with 58 points. He went on a tear before the break, racking up nine goals and 13 points in six games. That helped turn a six-game losing skid into a seven-game winning streak, lifting the Penguins from ninth in the Eastern Conference to fifth.
Asked if he could win the scoring race, Malkin pointed out he wasn't injured anymore and said: "Why not? I have great confidence now, and I try."
Crosby hopes to come back this season, at least for the playoffs. The Penguins are cautiously optimistic. Maybe he will, and maybe he'll pick up where he left off as he did Nov. 21, when he ended a 10-and-a-half-month absence with a two-goal, four-point performance. If he does and the Penguins' other injured players return to full strength, Pittsburgh should have the best team in the league.
But Crosby has played only eight games in more than a year's time now. Maybe he won't come back, or maybe he won't be the same when he does. We just don't know. Hell, we don't even know what his injury problems really are anymore, let alone the outlook.
What we do know is that Malkin is capable of carrying a team.
"It's not easy, but he can," said the Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, a fellow Russian and a teammate at the All-Star Game. "He's so hungry now, you can see. Every game, he have points, he have good plays."
Malkin had them Sunday – a goal and an assist. In the first period, he finished a give-and-go with Jarome Iginla even though Iginla passed the puck into his skates. Malkin kicked the puck to his stick in close, then chipped it over the left shoulder of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on the short side. He made it look ridiculously easy. He said he didn't even look where he was shooting.
"I think nobody understand how I got the puck in," Malkin said.
It's one thing to do that in a half-speed event like the All-Star Game. But Malkin does things like that at full speed. You don't need to know anything about hockey to know if Malkin is on his game. Just grab your remote.
"You can see from even watching the game on TV that when he's playing his game, he's got the puck all the time," said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen. "Some way the puck finds him, and he's coming through the middle."
"Pittsburgh's the one team we like to watch, because they're a good team," Sedin said. "We watch them quite a bit. He's got everything. He's big. He's strong. He's got a great shot. He makes the players around him better. I think he's the whole package."
Timonen said Malkin was probably the best player in the league right now. So did Sedin. So did several other all-stars. It was almost unanimous at media day on Friday, with some honorable mentions for guys like Datsyuk and the Flyers' Claude Giroux.
"Obviously everybody knows he's right now the best player in the league," said the Chicago Blackhawks' Marian Hossa, a former Penguins teammate, who is five points behind Malkin in the scoring race. "You can see the points, but also when you look at his game. He just dominates most of the games, if not every game."
Remember that Malkin won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2006-07. Remember that he didn't miss a game the next two seasons, when he put up a combined 82 goals and 219 points – winning that scoring title and that Conn Smythe, almost winning those Harts, lifting the Cup over his head.
He played 67 games in 2009-10, dipping to 28 goals and 77 points. He played only 43 games last season, fading to only 15 goals and 37 points. He had shoulder, knee and conditioning issues, and then he suffered torn knee ligaments Feb. 4.
"I have big surgery and tough work in summer," Malkin said.
But that tough work paid off. Before the season, Malkin told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review not to call it a comeback, because this was a new Malkin, a recommitted Malkin, not the one who was admittedly "lazy before." He reported to training camp in top shape. He said his "motivation is now very good."
His English isn't very good yet, but it's getting better. Malkin started a Twitter account. He started doing more interviews. He allowed some of his sense of humor to come out during All-Star Weekend, goofing around with reporters and teammates.
"What people don't know about him, he likes to joke," Hossa said. "When I was [in Pittsburgh], he just liked to joke around. Maybe you couldn't understand everything he said, you know, but it was just fun to be around him."
Crosby's absence continues to cast a shadow over the NHL. If and when he does come back, he will be monitored shift to shift. He might be for the rest of his career.
But the Penguins still have to play no matter what happens, and even though their injury problems have gone deeper than Crosby, they have not lowered their goals at all. They still have Kris Letang,Marc-Andre Fleury,James Neal and company. They still will have Jordan Staal when he returns from a knee injury.
"I want Crosby be here," Malkin said. "I know fans miss him, of course. But we play very well now, and we try do best without Crosby."
Their best means only one thing.
"With the lineup we have, the expectation is always high," said Letang, who came back from a concussion and played in the All-Star Game. "We don't see anything less than the Cup."
Even with the injuries?
"Even with the injuries."
Especially if Malkin can lead the way like this.
"I don't worry what people think about Pittsburgh," Malkin said. "I know we can do it. We can win the Stanley Cup."