x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Evgeni Malkin inspires Pittsburgh in the NHL in absence of Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to cope well despite being without their concussed talisman.

Evgeni Malkin has impressed for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season.
Evgeni Malkin has impressed for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season.

It is time to give Evgeni Malkin his due. For all the hand-wringing in Pittsburgh - and throughout the hockey world - over Sidney Crosby's prolonged concussion-related absence, the man they call Geno has picked up the Penguins and kept them in the play-off race.

It is also worth noting that the Pens have not just been without Crosby; they have also played much of the season without their other top centre in their two-way star Jordan Staal and have missed other key players for long periods, most notably linchpin, the defenceman Kris Letang.

Yet, through it all there has been Malkin, terrorising opponents with his rare combination of size, skill and hockey smarts.

It's fitting that he plays in Pittsburgh as Malkin resembles a latter-day Mario Lemieux, a big body who plays an unequalled power-finesse game. When he is on, he is unstoppable, and even when he is having a quiet game there is always the very real possibility he could explode for a goal or three.

Like Lemieux, Malkin can dominate while looking like he is in cruise control. Quite simply, he is a natural, and the game just seems to come to him rather than him having to chase it.

He leads the NHL with 58 points, including 26 goals, in 42 games and was an especially dominant force during Pittsburgh's seven-game winning streak heading into the All-Star break. On a line with James Neal and Chris Kunitz - who scored 16 of Pittsburgh's 24 goals during their charge - Malkin amassed nine goals and vaulted to the top of the scoring chart.

And it is all the more impressive when you consider Malkin missed seven games early in the season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee suffered last February.

In other words, as great as he is been in 2011/12, he is still gaining strength and getting better. The fact is, the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the play-off MVP is still just 25 years old; his career is still on the upswing. That's got to scare the rest of the NHL, not to mention how much more powerful the Penguins will be when Staal and Crosby return.

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia 's Claude Giroux was probably the leading contender for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, but Malkin has taken over. He has had two five-point games in the past month - scoring a hat-trick in both of those contests - and has 34 points in his last 21 outings. He has been held off the scoresheet just four times in that stretch. In short, Malkin is making a strong case that the Penguins - and the hockey world - are not missing their best player. He is right there in front of us, sometimes so effortlessly brilliant that he is almost overlooked.