PETR SYKORA figures most hockey players would love to be in his shoes. The Pittsburgh Penguins right wing says "there are 500 other players" who'd want to play on a line with Evgeni Malkin, the fabulous second-year center who is romping through the playoffs, setting up Sykora for easy one-timers when he isn't scoring his own film-at-11 goals. Apparently the only person who shouldn't be in Sykora's shoes, at least according to Malkin, is the man himself. Sykora has been padding around in the same size-11 Kenneth Coles that he wore when he won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2000, black slip-ons with a suede front, two leather strips across the vamp and a ripped heel, a vintage pair that might have been stylish in the millennium year the way, say, shag carpeting was in the 1970s. The impish Malkin throws them out daily. Sykora doggedly retrieves them from the locker room garbage can.
"Shoes [are] 10 years old," Malkin says. "Lucky shoes for him, but time for change. After playoffs, it's garbage."
That is the extent of Malkin's trash talk this postseason, at least in English. You want maxims, read Ben Franklin. You want a maximum effort, consider the still-filling-out 6'3", 195-pound playmaker, who had seven points in Pittsburgh's first-round sweep of Ottawa. Malkin scored just six fewer points than his more celebrated Russian countryman, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, this regular season but trails Ovechkin by maybe 5,000 words in English vocabulary. (Incidentally, when asked about his relationship with Ovechkin, with whom he has played on national teams, Malkin, through Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, his landlord and occasional interpreter, said, "Teammates, not friends.") But the Berlitz Wall is crumbling. Malkin is picking up the new language, one silly catchphrase at a time. During games of hearts on team flights, Malkin now loudly blurts, "That's personal," a favored Penguins expression, whenever he gets stuck with the diabolical queen of spades. "He's not an alien," says center Maxime Talbot, his roommate on the road. "He's a Russian learning to speak English."
"A lack of English holds him back, no doubt," says G.M. Ray Shero. "Geno"—Malkin's nickname—"has a personality, and it'll be great to see when it comes out. But when you look at his play, you don't need audio. You just need video. The silent movie."
When Malkin whips a first pass or wheels the puck through the neutral zone for go-go Pittsburgh—the Penguins convert from defense to offense more rapidly than any other team in the Eastern Conference—there is nothing lost in translation or transition. Malkin doesn't hog the puck, but he is so poised with it that he compels defensemen and goalies to overplay him, creating shooting lanes for wingers Sykora and Ryan Malone that are roomier than Jared of Subway's old pants. Says the 31-year-old Sykora, who has played with superb centers like Adam Oates and Doug Gilmour, "I appreciate every shift I have with him."
Malkin, of course, is complemented by another center of rare pedigree, Sidney Crosby. Like the Oilers' Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in the 1980s and Colorado's Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg a decade ago, the dual presence of Sid the Kid and the Force from Magnitogorsk demands a choice. So, Mr. Opposing Coach, do you employ your shutdown defense pair against Crosby's line or Malkin's? Do you want arsenic on that sandwich or will you just have a cup of hemlock? You can't have it both ways, although Ottawa coach Bryan Murray did split up his tandem of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov in the first round, using one of each against the top two Pittsburgh lines—not that it mattered. Crosby had two goals and six assists while Malkin had five assists and scored twice, including a one-handed swat at his own rebound after Crosby set him up with a sweet, cross-crease pass on a Game 4 power play.
If the Penguins trail in the third period, coach Michel Therrien also has the nuclear option of moving Malkin back to Crosby's left wing, where the natural center had been playing for a few weeks before Crosby sustained a high-ankle sprain on Jan. 18. The injury could have been calamitous for Pittsburgh. Says Shero, "People asked, 'What are you going to do without Crosby?' My answer was, I didn't know. How do you replace Sidney Crosby? But I did know we had someone capable of stepping into that role." The 21-year-old Malkin, already a star, became the Man. He had 46 points during Crosby's 28-game absence, finishing the regular season with a career-best 47 goals and 106 points. "Everyone knew he was a talent"—Malkin had been rookie of the year in 2006--07—"but the hockey world learned what a gamebreaker and leader he was when Sid went down," Malone says. "Geno wants to be a go-to guy."
A YEAR AGO, Malkin seemed as though he wanted to be a go-home guy. With the world championships in Moscow looming, Malkin played as if he had an Aeroflot ticket in his pocket during Pittsburgh's first-round exit against the Senators. After failing to score a goal in five desultory playoff games, he flew across eight time zones and a week later set the worlds on fire. When Malkin dazzled with five goals and five assists in nine matches at that tournament, it raised questions about his commitment to the rigors of the NHL playoffs.
The truth was that Malkin was well beyond mere physical fatigue when Pittsburgh hit the first-round wall in 2007. The fallout from his near cloak-and-dagger departure from a Metallurg Magnitogorsk training camp in Finland in August '06 and the threat of legal action—the Super League team's bid to get an injunction forbidding Malkin to play with Pittsburgh was denied in U.S. federal court that November—took as much a mental toll as the longest regular-season schedule he'd ever played exacted a physical one. Dave King, who coached Malkin in Magnitogorsk, calculates that from the opening of that club's training camp in mid--July '05 until the Penguins were eliminated last year, Malkin had a total of three months off. "The fact that he faded was no surprise," says King, a former NHL coach. "The [Russian federation] was playing him in basically every competition—Olympics, world championships, world juniors. High expectations and high-intensity hockey all the time."
"Leaving [Russia] was emotionally tough for him," says Gonchar, who played with Magnitogorsk during the 2004--05 NHL lockout. "You're playing your first year in the NHL. New language. New surroundings. New teammates. New hockey system. You're learning a lot, and that takes energy. The break before the world championships gave him time to recover, and playing before home crowds gives you extra energy."
There is a difference between being here and arriving, which Malkin did by tallying six points in the first five periods of the 2008 playoffs. When asked about the difference between this April and last, Malkin answered, in English, "One thousand [percent] ... my feeling is better. I'm stronger." After dispatching the imploding Senators hastily, all the Penguins should feel as swell. The only physical ailment that might affect Pittsburgh, which was to have at least a week off before the second round, is bedsores.
Spinning on their Crosby-Malkin axis, the blossoming Penguins appear to be logical heirs to another dynamic, dynastic team, one that began to coalesce a quarter of a century ago. Says King, "Watching Crosby and Malkin and Pittsburgh really is like watching the Oilers when they started their evolution. Energy. Skill. They keep learning how to win, and they'll be knocking on the door."
If Malkin can help the new Penguins become the old Oilers, he would be filling big shoes that never go out of style.
Do you put your top defenders on Crosby or Malkin? Do you want arsenic on that sandwich or will you have a CUP OF HEMLOCK?
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GETTING AFTER IT Malkin says he feels "a thousand percent" better than he did during last spring's playoff fizzle.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES
POWER COUPLE Crosby (left) and Malkin play together on the man-advantage; their unit had five goals in the sweep of Ottawa.