Sidney Crosby is the talk of the playoffs.
He's practicing daily, slowly regaining the speed and intensity necessary to make a return. Videos of his stick handling sessions are daily headlines. By all accounts, he looks game ready.
But he's recovering from a concussion. The Penguins' top scorer is only a few weeks removed from skating for the first time in months. No one knows how he will react to his first contact practice, and any form of regression represents a worst-case scenario for the team and for the league.
Still, the possibility of his return sometime this spring has kept him in the news. With their captain, the Penguins are Cup favorites in the East. Without him, few in the business give the team an outside shot at advancing past the second round.
Pittsburgh's championship prospects seem to rest squarely on the possible return of Crosby.
So what about Evgeni Malkin?
Since the lockout, Pittsburgh has relied on the scoring of its two premier centers, and Crosby is only one half of that equation. The presiding notion remains that the team cannot go the distance without each center playing at the top of his game.
Such was the case in the 2009 postseason, when the duo combined for 29 goals and 67 points in 24 games on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
Even as Malkin has struggled over the last two seasons, his presence forces opposing defenses to stay honest. He thins out a team's ability to defend against Pittsburgh's first and second lines, and opens up offensive opportunities for those around him.
Still, his absence has garnered none of the attention that Crosby's has.
Folks seem to have forgotten about Malkin, or don't believe he is as vital to the team's success as Crosby. One can see where the attitude comes from. Crosby was on pace to hit career highs in all categories—Malkin, career lows. Crosby is the face of the team and of the league—Malkin keeps a low public profile and remains less than fluent in English speaking interviews.
Hockey fans also seem to have a hard time forgiving slumping Europeans, and unrest concerning Malkin's play dates back to last season. Perhaps that's just a Pittsburgh thing (see: Jagr, Jaromir, vilification of).
To further obscure his absence, the Penguins are playing star-caliber defense. The personnel are among the best the team has ever collected, Dan Bylsma’s defensive systems are working splendidly and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is in the middle of his finest professional season. Pittsburgh no longer needs to score four or five goals to guarantee a victory.
Although it’s plain to see where the attitude comes from, it still can't be justified.
Since 2007, Malkin has added 29 goals and 44 assists for 73 points in 62 career playoff games (1.18 PPG in postseason). In the last three postseasons combined, only Crosby (82 points in 62 games, 1.32 PPG) has more points than Malkin.
Statistically, Malkin has been nearly Crosby's equal in the postseason. While his play dipped a year ago, it was Malkin who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the 2009 playoffs.
Malkin also led the Penguins and the league in scoring for the regular season, capturing the Art Ross (113 points) and Conn Smythe trophies in the same year. Mario Lemieux is the only other Penguin to win both awards in the same campaign (1992).
Beyond the stats are the intangibles. No team can reasonably expect to shut down two lines anchored by top-flight centers (discount the 2010 Montreal series. Pittsburgh's defense was of the pillow-soft variety).
Malkin's presence forces teams to choose between defending him and defending Crosby. In either scenario, a top-five NHL center gets to match up against a second defensive pairing.
Prior to his injury, Malkin was experiencing an off-year, to be sure. That may have had something to do with his line mates. Coming into the season, Malkin was expected to line up on the wing with Jordan Staal moving to second-line center. A nagging injury hampered Malkin until he blew out his knee for good. Compounding injuries saw Malkin and Staal play in just a handful of games together, mostly on different, more familiar lines.
As tough a stretch as Malkin has experienced, he simply cannot be dismissed as a vital part of the team's success.
The circumstances surrounding Crosby's injury have been nebulous and made him a constant headline. Given the delicacy of his injury and the long-term possibilities of a relapse, his injury will be a story every day until he returns or the Penguins finish their postseason run.
For Malkin, the certainty has been there all along—torn ACL and MCL, thus nothing to speculate upon.
That Malkin's knee injury isn't the ailment du jour in the NHL, or that he wasn't experiencing the career year that Crosby was, shouldn't diminish his importance to the Penguins as they prepare to enter the postseason.