The Pittsburgh Penguins are starting the regular season without captain Sidney Crosby, but their other No. 1 center looks more than ready to pick up the slack.
After a season in which he averaged less than a point per game for the first time in his career, then missed the second half with a knee injury that required surgical repair, Evgeni Malkin worked hard this summer. He brought Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar to Moscow to put him through tough workouts and accelerate his rehabilitation. At training camp, he made a point of being the first player in the gym.
Malkin’s work ethic and motivation are at a new level, and his goal is simple: “I’m going to try to play at the same level I played at three years before,” he said.
That would be 2008-09, when all Malkin did was win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer, the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, and the Stanley Cup. And, if his preseason is any indication, Malkin is on the right path, looking well on his way to midseason form from the first time he hit the ice.
“He was at a dominant level – his skating looked good, he was strong, powerful on the puck,” said head coach Dan Bylsma after the team’s first preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings, and the first time Malkin saw game action since February 4. “To be able to get the fans out of their seats at an exhibition game three or four times, and playing the right way as well – driving the net, good on the puck, hunting the puck – that was a pretty impressive effort for his first game back.”
And the 25-year-old forward continued to impress, racking up seven points (3G, 4A) in four preseason games and resembling an even more confident version of his three-years-before self.
“He’s just really hungry,” Crosby said. “When he demands the puck like that, when he’s hungry like that, you can’t stop him. It’s fun to see when he’s dominating the play like that. Obviously, it’s preseason, but even more so the fact that he wants it that bad in preseason – that’s a great sign for us.”
Still, Malkin is chomping at the bit to get back into the games that count.
“I’ve not played for such a long time, and I know how I can play,” he said. “I feel great; I’m ready to work hard. I played four preseason games and I’m ready. I know how I can play, I know how we can play. We have great coaches, a great system, and we just play our game.”
To start the season, Malkin will center wingers James Neal and newcomer Steve Sullivan on the Penguins’ top line. The 5-foot-8, 161-pound Sullivan displayed chemistry with Malkin from the start of camp.
“I think Sullivan has a very unique hockey sense and is a real smart player,” Bylsma said. “He has the ability to read other people and their tendencies. He has shown, in a very short period of time, the ability to play with Geno. He’s been able to read that and play and feed off that – and also complements what Geno does so well. He has brought that, both five-on-five and on the power play, up to this point.”
With Malkin’s renewed motivation, some are already predicting a rebound season that culminates in his first Hart Trophy as league MVP. And, although Malkin wouldn’t mind becoming the second member of his team to win that prize, he’s also looking forward to the one who already has rejoining the lineup and giving him a run for his money.
“Sid always looks good,” Malkin said, commenting on the captain’s on-ice workouts as he continues to work his way back from his concussion. “Best player ever.”