By Rob Rossi
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 02: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his goal with Jayson Megna #59 and Christian Ehrhoff #10 during the third period against the New Jersey Devils at Consol Energy Center on December 2, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The best player in hockey hasn't always played in Pittsburgh, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have done enough for more than eight seasons to make it seem that way.
They're still doing it, too. Crosby was the NHL scoring leader as of Tuesday morning. His toughest competition for a third Art Ross Trophy was the only other top-10 scorer to have won that award twice: Malkin.
“He just looks fresh,” Crosby said of Malkin.
“Whether that's mentally or physically, it looks like he's healthy.”
Yeah it does.
In fact, I haven't seen Malkin look like this — aggressive on the forecheck, active on the backcheck, sticking up for himself and teammates, engaged during practices, wanting the puck, confident with his shot (and scoring goals) — since his lone MVP campaign, and that already was three years ago.
I spent time with Malkin in Moscow after that season. It was there that I truly came to appreciate the challenges he faced as a Russian playing a Canadian game in an American city. I couldn't speak his language, wasn't sure how to navigate his streets and didn't understand his culture, so I realized how easy it was to become misunderstood and how frustrating that was to deal with day after day.
Admittedly, I've never looked at Malkin the same way since my trip to Moscow. Every time I see him, at or away from the rink, I am reminded that a big part of him remains a stranger in another part of the hockey world, a part where ugly stereotypes of Russian players make for anything-goes criticism when times turn tough.
Times indeed were tough for Malkin a year ago. He did not enjoy the build-up to the Sochi Olympics, and he enjoyed the actual Games a lot less. Russia's failure to win gold (or any medal) on home ice hurt Malkin, but not as much as his feeling as though he was slighted by a Russian Federation looking to promote players who chose the Kontinental Hockey League over the NHL.
Malkin was so distraught with his Olympic experience that he skipped the closing ceremony, retreated to Moscow and returned to Penguins teammates wondered what they could say to lift his spirits.
Crosby was the teammate who eventually reached out. Their conversation was the best indication I've seen of how their relationship has evolved into a close friendship.
“It's been nine years,” Crosby said, smiling. “I think when you've been teammates for that long, you have to know each other a little bit.”
Crosby has discovered “there are more similarities than you probably think.”
Indeed, Crosby is not as serious and Malkin not as silly as snapshot postgame interviews often suggest. The captain can prank with anybody, and his top alternate takes losses harder than everyone.
Malkin was disgusted with himself after the Penguins' latest postseason flameout last spring. He had figured he could help pick up Crosby, who was struggling to score (partly because of an injured wrist). They played together on the same line in Round 2 against the Rangers, and they combined for only one goal in three straight losses to end a series the Penguins once led 3-1.
Back in Moscow, Malkin hired a new trainer, Aleksandr Vasilevich Troshin. Having trained Red Army track and field stars, Troshin provided Malkin with a grueling workout routine. Sergei Gonchar, who trained with Malkin, said the sessions targeted muscles that sprinters and hockey players need to improve explosiveness.
“It wasn't easy,” Gonchar said. “You would see a lot of heavy breathing, but this is what you have to do to keep up with the younger players. You have to work harder as you get older.”
Malkin is 28. He has performed like a man five years younger in his ninth season, starting with 12 goals and 30 points in 24 games despite missing all of training camp with an injury.
Coach Mike Johnston's system has helped, a fairly accomplished scout suggested.
“We're playing an aggressive style, and he can make plays,” Crosby said. “He holds onto the puck well, and what we're doing under Mike gives Geno more space.”
The extra space has given Malkin a chance to chase his fourth 100-point season. A rebuilt body has given him an opportunity to stay healthy for the first time in three years. A new coach has given him a reason to feel good about coming to work.
Oh yeah, that.
It was a mostly well-kept secret within the Penguins that Malkin and former coach Dan Bylsma weren't on the same page much of the past two seasons. Their differences were hockey related, not personal, but they existed, and they were a problem.
Johnston visited Malkin in Moscow and later, along with the urging of new general manager Jim Rutherford, provided a simple, specific and attainable (though not easy) goal for the season.
Be the best player in hockey.
Crosby remains that, but he also knows best who might take that title from him. Only Malkin can, as we're seeing so far this season.
Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/robrossi/7281387-74/malkin-crosby-hockey#ixzz3KpwKeUNh
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