Saturday, March 10, 2018

Evgeni Malkin's hunt for hockey history in stretch run

By Rob Rossi
March 9, 2018
Evgeni Malkin follows the play during an NHL game against the Carolina Hurricanes on February 23 2018 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Karl DeBlaker/NHLI via Getty Images)

Evgeni Malkin isn't chasing another scoring title. He is hunting history.
And since one of the great hockey players of his generation remains a mystery to so many people, take it from somebody who knows him a little bit: Malkin knows the place he wants to occupy in history.
He wants to be the greatest Russian hockey player the NHL has ever known.
It's to the point that Malkin is aware how many more goals and points he needs to supplant Sergei Fedorov's totals.
He won't fly past Fedorov this season. Even a third Art Ross trophy wouldn't win that “greatest Russian” distinction for Malkin, if only because it probably won't be accompanied by a second Hart Trophy.
A handful of players seem safer bets to win that award. Doesn't seem to matter that Malkin has been hockey's best player for the past three months, that his individual dominance as a scorer has sparked the Penguins into contention for the Eastern Conference's second seed, or that he might pull off what would have been inconceivable.
At one point this season, the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov was a lock to land atop the scoring standings. At this point in the season, reigning scoring champion Connor McDavid of the Oilers is the popular pick to pry that spot from Kucherov.
If you switch out Alex Ovechkin for Kucherov and Sidney Crosby for McDavid, you would have Malkin's career plight in a nutshell. He's always The Other One.
Wait, is Malkin even The Other One this season?
There is a noticeable lack of MVP buzz being attached to Malkin's magnificence. What he's doing daily is being taken for granted by the greater hockey community.
But, as Malkin said this past summer, he is “used to people maybe forgetting about me.”
Doesn't mean he is ever happy about it.
He wasn't happy that so-called experts didn't vote him onto the NHL100 list last season. A lot of us couldn't make sense of his omission, but Malkin used the pain from it to fuel another Cup run for the Penguins. Though Crosby was a deserving Conn Smythe recipient, Malkin took great satisfaction in leading the Penguins in goals and points during the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Some of my best hockey,” Malkin said last summer, when recalling his 2017 postseason.
I disagreed. I argued that Malkin had never consistently performed at a higher overall level, that his two-way game was at its peak through four rounds, that it took another awesome postseason from Crosby to deny him a second Conn Smythe. I had seen the best from Malkin, and last postseason was it.
“No,” Malkin said. “It was 2009.”
Know what? He is right. So taken for granted is Malkin taken that even his authorized biographer somehow managed to forget that only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey have put up more points in a single postseason than Malkin's 36 in the 2009 playoffs.
So then, what are any of us to make of what Malkin is doing almost a full decade after his acknowledged best work?
At the very least, we can seek perspective on what it means to finish a regular season as the NHL's Scorer Prime.
“To me, it means you just had an overall great year,” Crosby said Friday after the Penguins practiced at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“If you lead our league, that says something about your year. It's not something you think about when it's happening. At least, I haven't. But I do look back and think about some seasons when I was on top and then something happened and I didn't win.”
Crosby was the NHL leader in points at or after the midpoint of three seasons that were shortened by injury. Off the top of his head Friday, he recalled a high-ankle sprain in January 2008, a concussion in January 2011 and a broken jaw in 2013 that surely kept his already-stacked trophy case from needing its own wing.
To lead the NHL in points, a player needs to be great and healthy. To be that player once is an awesome achievement.
Crosby is one of only three players this century to win multiple scoring titles. He and Malkin are the only two to win theirs in the salary-cap era. Just eight players have taken the scoring title on at least three occasions.
Is “3” a magic number for the greatest scorers?
“No, I don't think so,” Crosby said. “I mean, if he didn't win it (this season), it's not going to change the way I feel about him.
“But for Geno, it would be great. It might remind some people of how great a player he's been ... since he came into the league, really. I don't know how some people forget, but you know what I mean.”
It's ridiculous to think that a hockey player with Malkin's accomplishments — only five players have won the Calder, Ross, Hart and Smyth trophies and the Cup — might be in need of another first-place scoring finish to secure his place in history.
Then again, ridiculous is what Malkin has done best since breaking away from his Russian squad to join the Penguins in the summer of 2006. His being involved in another Ross run a dozen years later might be the most ridiculous thing this already all-time player has ever done.
Know what would really rate as ridiculous? That would be betting against Malkin the rest of the way.
“I think so,” Crosby said. “I mean, are you watching what he's doing? He's feeling it. When you're feeling it like that, you don't think about getting points, but you feel like you can do anything.”
Forget “greatest Russian.” Evgeni Malkin is one of hockey's greatest players, period. He can do anything.
He is doing it again.
Rob Rossi is a contributing columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Real_RobRossi

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