Russian Proverb Number 1: Bol'shoi sekret—znaet ves' svet. (Big secret—all the world knows.)
Evgeni Malkin wraps the blade of his Easton EQ SS stick with white tape, a color preference he shares with maybe 20% of NHL players. But technique, not hue, differentiates a Malkin tape job: He starts at the toe and works backward. A Malkin-izing should be relatively easy to recognize for a practiced eye because the spot where he rips the tape upon completion—literally, the tail of the tape—is at the heel and not the toe. These nuances are noteworthy only because a punk'd Sidney Crosby, a staunch black-tape guy, should have been able to identify the unknown prankster (well, unknown until now) who wrapped his sticks a telltale white when the injured Penguins captain was with the team in November in San Jose.
There is an even more obvious Malkin calling card, one the 6'3", 195-pound center drops around NHL arenas the way the Lone Ranger once left a silver bullet. He will slip the puck inside the isosceles triangle formed by the defender's stick and skates, unsettling an opponent who has been instructed to take away Malkin's space but who now finds that Malkin has invaded his space. Malkin gains leverage. Then he leans like a skier at a slalom gate, stick-handles and whoosh! He is a conjurer who has created the illusion he has gone through a defender rather than around him.
"Those are incredible displays of hand-puck skills, much to the chagrin of his coach," said Dan Bylsma, who actually is his coach, as he sat in a Boston hotel lobby last month. "Coming out of the [defensive] zone, he'll go underneath a guy's stick three, four times a game, into the triangle. Sometimes he looks like he's doing it for pleasure. Just because he can, you know? Everybody in the world would think it's a bad move, but he's done it 18 times in the last five games, and it's gone wrong once. Kinda tough for me to say, 'No, don't do it.'"
Bylsma worries about Malkin although, in truth, the consternation is directed inward rather than at his player. Bylsma wonders if he bores him. He senses Malkin always knows what he is going to say on the bench or in meetings, just like the center already knows what a defender will do on the ice. Or should do, anyway. When Malkin botches the Triangle Move, it usually is because the defender has made the wrong play, or at least the unanticipated play, rather than the play Malkin already had factored into his personal equation.
Malkin is so hockey smart, he is almost gaming the game. In Crosby's continued absence, Malkin has, after so many seasons, reintroduced himself, stepping into the role of the most dominant, dynamic player in the world ... and, like the Russian proverb, it is a secret the whole world is beginning to know.
"[The Red Wings' Pavel] Datsyuk's a great player, but he'll look to pass first," says Coyotes' development coach Dave King, who coached Malkin for one season with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the former Russian Super League. "And [the Capitals' Alex] Ovechkin, he'll look to shoot, which is unlike so many of the Russians and what makes him so unusual. [Malkin] keeps you honest."
"Geno can dominate because he understands the spatial part of the game so well," says Bylsma, using the Americanization of Malkin's Russian nickname, which is pronounced ZHEN-ya. "In sheer skill level Geno probably has to be rated higher [than Crosby]. There's magic there, a little bit different than what Sid has."
"I just don't know why he's not getting that top-top-top-guy notoriety," Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell says. "But he will be, for sure."
Camouflaged by Crosby's doggedness and technical excellence and dwarfed by Ovechkin's outsized personality and fluency in English, Malkin sometimes hides in plain sight—even though his NHL-best three five-point games this season should make his gifts as apparent as his tape jobs. Malkin, remember, won the Calder Trophy in 2007. He won the scoring title two years later. More significant, he won the Conn Smythe on the '09 Stanley Cup champions. Currently he leads the NHL with 78 points, while centering 30-goal-scorer James Neal and Chris Kunitz on a line that has accounted for 84 of the Penguins' 191 goals. He has had consecutive-game point streaks of nine, six and five, keeping Pittsburgh comfortably in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack even though Crosby, center Jordan Staal and Norris Trophy--caliber defenseman Kris Letang have missed a combined 97 games. He has three hat tricks; the most recent one last Saturday included a goal that saw him weave through five Lightning defenders like Gale Sayers running for daylight.
The brilliance is hardly a scoop. He has been a sublime player practically since he poked a loose puck through Martin Brodeur's pads in October 2006 for the first of his 195 NHL goals. But as a Wi-Fi outage indirectly reminds us of the wonders of a wired world, we still need an occasional Malkin rampage to notice a player whose brilliance is all too often taken for granted.
Russian Proverb Number 2: Dva medvedya v odnoi berloge ne zhivut. (Two bears don't lie in one lair.)
When Malkin arrived in 2006 (after skipping out on Magnitogorsk during a training camp in Helsinki, obtaining a fast-track visa to the United States and winning a court battle to legally join the team that had drafted him No. 2, behind Ovechkin, two years earlier), Crosby, then in his second NHL season, asked the newcomer where he wanted to be in the meticulously choreographed ballet of the Penguins' pregame introductions.
Last. Malkin preferred to be last.
Crosby mentioned he was the final guy but....
Malkin interrupted. "Three years Super League," he said, and Crosby nodded, ceding pride of place in the time-honored manner to the veteran—even if Malkin had been seasoned 11 time zones away.
Malkin and Crosby are the proverbial bears. They agreeably share a dressing-room lair, perhaps because they read the game at the same expert level. When Crosby is healthy, they work together on the power play. When Pittsburgh presses for a late goal, Malkin often shifts to Crosby's wing. Combining the two best centers on a team since Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in Colorado—or maybe Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in Edmonton—should make Malkin even more of a threat. Theoretically. "Two of the top five players in the world playing together should be dynamic," Bylsma says. "And the power play should create opportunities for two great players. Why hasn't it? I don't have an answer to that. I'm not quite that good of a coach yet."
The curious phenomenon was first noticeable in 2007--08 when Malkin scored 46 points in the 29 games that Crosby missed with an ankle injury. In the 315 games Malkin has played with Crosby in the lineup, he has averaged .435 goals and 1.16 points. (Malkin had 10 points in the eight matches they played together this season before Crosby again was sidelined with concussionlike symptoms.) In 92 career games without Crosby, Malkin's output jumps significantly—to .630 goals per game and 1.41 points per game. In his first 82 games without Crosby—the length of an NHL regular season, in other words—Malkin had 112 points. In the past decade only five players, including Malkin with an NHL-leading 113 points in '08--09, have surpassed that total.
Malkin simultaneously considers the numbers and gathers his improving English. As a schoolboy in Magnitogorsk he studied English for one hour a week for five years, the kind of pedagogy guaranteed to take a student no further than "See Spot run!" When he landed in Pittsburgh, defenseman Sergei Gonchar became his new best friend, his translator and sometimes his crutch.
The gregarious Malkin made an effort to assimilate—in the 2009 Stanley Cup final he astonished everyone by chirping linemate Max Talbot at a press conference for his "little bit bad hands," breaking up the room and leaving the chatty Talbot speechless—but his personality did not fully begin to emerge until Gonchar signed with the Senators in '10. "Goofy funny," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, a former roommate, describes it. Now miles past the days when he would describe his goals with the phrase "I am score," Malkin told the team he would be willing to do more interviews. (During All-Star weekend Malkin held court for more than 20 minutes and then did a TV interview, all without a translator.) Now he answers the Crosby question, "Maybe coach gives me little more time. Play little more on power play, maybe 20, 30 seconds. But not really change my game."
Malkin possesses what teammate Pascal Dupuis calls the Superman gene. Glasses come off. One-timer comes out. When asked if he would like to appropriate anything from Malkin's game, Crosby gushes, "There's a lot I would take, starting with his one-timer.... I really appreciate his game and really enjoy playing with him." The 5'11" Crosby would also like some of Malkin's looming size to allow him to protect the puck even better, but he notes, "That's science."
"I think Geno puts more pressure on his shoulders being the main guy," Letang says. "With Sid out, teams are paying more attention to him. They're playing him harder. And he likes that. Some guys want it easy. He wants it hard. He loves the pressure. He loves to bring the A game when there's a lot of adversity."
Russian Proverb Number 3: Kto ne hochet rabotat' letom, budet golodat' zimoi. (They must hunger in winter that will not work in summer.)
If a hungry Malkin is skating figure eights around the NHL this winter—he is second to the Lightning's Steven Stamkos with 37 goals—it is because he did work in summer.
He worked harder than he ever had because for the first time in his 25 years he felt he had no choice. "Maybe before," he says, "little bit lazy," although it was less a case of indolence than the ridiculous ease with which he had mastered hockey. He always had just, you know, played. Then on Feb. 4, 2011, when Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers fell on his right knee in the corner, playtime was over. Malkin had shredded his ACL and MCL. He had surgery. Malkin rehabbed feverishly and even implored Bylsma (to no avail) to play him in Game 7 of the first-round playoff series against the Lightning, a welcome-to-summer 1--0 Pittsburgh loss.
Malkin returned to Russia embarrassed. For the first time in the NHL—indeed for the first time since he was a skinny 19-year-old playing for his hometown team—he had failed to average at least a point per game last season in his 43 matches. (Since 2006--07 only two players—Crosby and Ovechkin—have been point-per-game men every season.) More than a streak had vanished. He had lost his command of the game.
To retrieve something he had once done as well as anyone in the world, he turned to Mike Kadar, the Penguins' strength and conditioning coach. Kadar spent almost three weeks training him in Moscow. Gonchar, who owns a condominium on the same floor there, noticed the zeal with which Malkin embraced the work. "He hadn't always used his talents or pushed 100 percent," Gonchar says. "The injury helped him mature. It reminded him how much he loved playing the game and made him realize what he had to do to keep playing it at his level. People were forgetting about him [in the discussion of great players]. And that was extra motivation."
Now Malkin's kick-and-giggle games of hallway soccer have been augmented by an actual pregame regimen of stretching. Then he hops over the boards for 21 or so minutes per game and stretches credulity, like he did in mid-February. Fresh off a five-point game a night earlier against the Jets, Malkin scored twice and was on for the other two Pittsburgh goals as he tilted the ice against Tampa Bay in what Bylsma called "our best [example] of playing Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey." The display of virtuosity was reminiscent not of the other bear in the lair but of the man who signs Malkin's checks, co-owner Mario Lemieux.
In Pittsburgh newspapers the next morning Bylsma, Kunitz and defenseman Matt Niskanen were drooling high praise of their fabulous center. Malkin was not made available to the press.
Russian Proverb Number 4: Horoshaya rabota sama govorit za sebya. (Good work speaks for itself.)
"WITH SID OUT, TEAMS ARE PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO [MALKIN]," SAYS LETANG. "THEY'RE PLAYING HIM HARDER. AND HE LIKES THAT."
Photograph by JIM MCISAAC
BIG BIRD The 6' 3", 195-pound Malkin (71), who leads the league with 78 points and is second with 37 goals, worked hard over the summer to rehab from the knee injury that ended his season last year.
RICHARD WOLOWICZ/GETTY IMAGES
KING OF THE WHIRL In a 3--2 shootout loss on Feb. 7, Malkin beat Canadiens goalie Carey Price for a spin-o-rama goal, one of a number of highlight-reel plays that remind fans more of co-owner Lemieux than of Crosby (87, left).
GREGORY SHAMUS/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]