Twenty three year old Evgeni Malkin has been a star in the NHL from the moment he stepped on the ice. He was a point a game player and Calder trophy winner as a rookie.
The last two years when Sidney Crosby has been hurt, it's been Malkin who has taken up the slack and lead the team. He won the league scoring title last year. He was the leading scorer in the playoffs and won the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs for a Penguin team that won the Stanley Cup.
This year he hasn't quite seemed the same. This is his first season in the league where he hasn't managed to score at least 30 goals. He's been hurt off and on and a banged up shoulder in October has contributed to him only playing 67 games and probably accounts for his reduced goal and point production.
His point per game production is down significantly from last year. Aside from that he hasn't looked like the same dominant player he proved himself to be when Crosby went down for a large portion of the 2007/08 season.
Watching him play before the Olympics you had to wonder if he was saving himself for those games. There was a careful half-speed quality to his game that seemed to be more about preserving his health than winning hockey games.
Come the Olympics however that top-end performance that he's capable of never seemed to come. The run up to the playoffs and then the playoffs themselves seemed to feature a young center who had lost the ability to be the best player in the league.
Sidney Crosby this year has made a step forward as a hockey player. Malkin has seemed to take a small step backwards. Where there was a debate in Pittsburgh the last two years about which of their young superstars was the best, that controversy has gone away this year.
Still, Evgeni Malkin without his Mojo, without that component that makes him greater than normal hockey players, is still great. A half-speed Malkin is a point a game player who finished 19th in the scoring race in the regular season. He's still one of the elite talents in the league. This year though he isn't mentioned when the debate begins about who is the league's best player.
Last night in Montreal in the third period of a 0-0 game Malkin scored a power play goal on the indomitable Jaroslav Halak. It seemed as if the weight of the world came off his shoulders. This game winning goal to put the Penguins up 2-1 in their playoff series with Montreal, seemed to resurrect the MVP Malkin, the scoring leader Malkin.
His last shifts in this tight playoff game were things of beauty. He reacquired a confidence and speed that has been his for most of his career. He dominated when he was on the ice for the rest of the third period and the Montreal Canadiens had no way to stop him.
If Evgeni Malkin has truly regained his power, his mojo, then the Montreal Canadiens need to be afraid. Pittsburgh's playoff opponents have so far dedicated their greatest defensive efforts, mostly in vain, to stopping Sidney Crosby. It's important for Pittsburgh's playoff success to have another line or player capable of scoring key goals while their captain is being mugged in a corner.
If Evgeni Malkin is back to being that player not only Montreal has to worry. The rest of Pittsburgh's opponents in the Stanley Cup playoffs will also have to fear.
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