NHL Scoring Race: Evgeni Malkin Running Away as Hart Trophy Favorite

James ConleyContributor IIIFebruary 14, 2012

Malkin may be running away with the scoring race, but he wouldn't even be in the running if not for top-flight linemates Neal & Kunitz
Malkin may be running away with the scoring race, but he wouldn't even be in the running if not for top-flight linemates Neal & KunitzJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

Before tempering the excitement of the weekend's 12-goal outburst with reminders that Winnipeg and Tampa Bay aren't the '95 Devils, let's agree that with all respect to Claude Giroux, Henrik Lundqvist and the rest of the NHL, no one is more deserving of the Hart Trophy at this point than Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin used a three-goal, eight-point weekend performance to push his Art Ross bid to an NHL-leading 69 points in 49 games, seven points more than Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos, who place second and in fewer games than any of the NHL's top-35 scorers.

"When Sid was going on his streak last year, it was kind of the same thing. It opens up ice for everybody else," linemate Chris 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."

While Malkin isn't quite on the same pace Crosby was last year (1.41 PPG versus Crosby's otherworldly 1.61 PPG), what his work this year has in common with Crosby's truncated 2010-11 is that it gives the Penguins, for a second straight season, the best player in the NHL.

"He looks like in 2009, maybe, when Sid went down he kind of took over and was playing unbelievable," defenseman Kris Letang said of Malkin following Sunday's 4-2 win over Tampa Bay. "His game is better than it was two years ago."

"I think he's playing great hockey, and it's the first time I've seen him being that dominant."

This is the same Kris Letang who saw Malkin win the Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophies in 2009, the second of two straight years in which Geno also finished as Hart Trophy runner-up to Alex Ovechkin.

Malkin has taken control of the Penguins in Crosby's absence and in the process is taking control of the NHL scoring race. That's a race Malkin has won once already and come within six points of winning a second time, though neither campaign was enough to earn him League MVP honors.

All things remaining constant, it's high time Malkin gets to add that honor to his trophy case. Here's why:

Last Men Standing

Every team deals with injuries. It's a popular reprise and no quarter is given to players and teams which fail to compensate for their fallen.

Motivational coachspeak aside, injuries have an inextricable effect on the game—especially when three of your five best players miss extended periods of time in the same season.

That was the case last year when Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal combined to miss 122 games and it's been this case again this year as Staal, Letang and Crosby have each missed more than 20 games so far.

The combined losses of so many of the team's best offensive assets made Malkin's dominance a necessity for the Penguins.

Crosby has chipped in 12 points in the eight games he's played this year. Staal is tied for third on the team with 16 goals despite having missed 20 games with injuries and Letang is fifth with 29 points (most among defensemen) while having missed 23 games himself.

With so much missing (the Penguins didn't even have an identifiable second line until Staal returned to the lineup Saturday), the Malkin line's ability to score in the face of unfavorable match-ups against opponents' best defensemen becomes even more impressive.

Kunitz and James Neal have benefited mightily from playing with Malkin, as he has equally benefited from playing with wingers of their caliber.

Together, the Penguins' top line has combined for 164 points this season.

In Spite of Games Missed With Injury

As we mentioned earlier, Malkin has played fewer games than anyone in the top-35 of NHL scoring. That hasn't prevented him from opening up a seven-point lead on current runners-up Giroux and Stamkos, who have played three and six more games than Malkin, respectively.

Geno's 69 points (32G, 37A) lead the league, as does his 1.41 PPG average.

Malkin missed seven games early in the season while still experiencing discomfort in his recovery from knee surgery the previous spring. The time off hasn't stopped him from hanging around the top of the league in most offensive categories.

His 32 goals trail only Stamkos' 37 and his 37 assists are sixth in the NHL. Malkin is also fourth in the league with seven game-winning goals, a stat that does not take into account the shootout (since no shootout goal is considered a 'goal,' no game-winners can be awarded).

Malkin is 7-for-9 (78 percent) in the shootout this season, an area in which his production was previously Steve McKenna-like.

Geno's on pace for 49 goals, which would be a career best. That's due in no small part to his 227 shots, second in the NHL behind teammate James Neal.

If he finishes with a projected 49 goals, 56 assists and 104 points over 75 games, it'll be just the third-highest total of his career (though his highest PPG average).

Per game, this is the most productive Malkin has ever been.

Clutch Evgeni is Clutch

Numbers aren't the only determinant of value, and players with the most points or goals don't always capture the MVP hardware.

Making big plays in big moments has been one of Malkin's new tricks this season.

Thirteen of Geno's 32 goals (41 percent) have come in the third period or overtime and his seven GWG lead the club. He's also got 17 goals when trailing or tied and only two empty-netters on the year.

Malkin has also been the model of consistency, scoring 17 goals in his last 17 games and currently enjoying an 8-game home goal scoring streak, the Pens' second of the season. Of the five 8-game home-scoring streaks since the lockout, two belong to the Penguins—Malkin and Neal—and both this season.

Malkin's consistency has also helped Neal, a notorious first-half performer, to keep scoring. Neal has 19 points (8G, 11A) in his last 14 games (beginning with game 43, the first of the second half of the schedule).

Kunitz, too, is benefiting from Malkin's clutch play. Together, the current top line has accounted for 12 game-winning goals—one fewer than the rest of the team combined.

All told, this is Malkin's sixth year in the NHL. He's set to lead the Penguins in scoring for a third time and capture the Art Ross Trophy for a second time.

If that's the case, there should be nothing to stop him from being league MVP for the first time.

Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes obtained and used with permission. Get some: Slew Footers / @Slew_James


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