Something strange has happened in the city of Pittsburgh at the time that the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the midst of a 6 game losing streak and looking like they had given up on this NHL season. Now I am not saying that the team had literally given up and not trying, but I do mean that the players look disinterested and unmotivated. They were struggling to not just score goals but also make routine plays.
During this time I was listening to my friend and Pens writer Brian Metzer on TribLIVE Radio, as I highly respect not just Brian’s work but also his opinion on the team. Brian stated that the one player who had been playing hard and was a man on the island was Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin, or Geno as he is affectionately known by teammates and fans, has been an interesting case study in the NHL since his rookie season. He was drafted second overall by the Penguins in 2004. Geno had a rough road to get to the NHL as there was an international player transfer dispute that forced him to remain in Russia.
When he finally came to The ‘Burgh, Malkin showed flashes of brillance and instantly reminded me of former Pittsburgh Penguin Jaromir Jagr. The way he could dazzle opponents with one on one moves and the aloofness in his skating stride, #71 seemed to be the second coming of #68, but there was also some concern with Geno. He seemed to lack the consistency and maybe the fire to take his game to the next level.
After winning the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year, he had consecutive 100 point seasons, won the Art Ross as the NHL’s leading scorer and also won the Conn Smythe trophy for play off MVP when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. He was on the cusp of breaking out and was very close to being entered into the exclusive club of NHL elite with countryman Alexander Ovechkin and teammate Sidney Crosby. Then there was a speed bump.
The next two seasons saw him miss huge chunks of time due to injury and even though he had averaged exactly one point a game during these two seasons, he was not putting up the expected points per game average that everyone had expected of him. You see in the 2007-08 season he averaged 1.29 points per game. In the following season that saw him win the Art Ross, he averaged 1.38 points per game but in the 110 games he played over two seasons from 2009 – 2001 he had 110 points. It looked like Geno was stagnating at a pace well below where he should have been.
The question in Pittsburgh and around the NHL was “What happened to Malkin?” and I will admit that I was asking it too. You see, Geno reminded me of Jagr in more than one way. Jagr seemed to shrink away from challenges either from teammates to up his game or from expectation from time to time. I saw this happening and wondered if Malkin had the desire, fire and drive to up the ante and push himself to the next level. Could he step up and carry this team and be an elite player again?
This season the Penguins were suffering from a string of losses, a string of bad luck, a string of bad injuries and something started to happen with Malkin. He didn’t back down from the challenge to raise his game or those playing with him. For the first time in years Geno planted his heels firmly in the ground and said “No more!”
I said we as Penguin fans, needed him to grab this team by the boot straps like Sidney Crosby does when he is playing. He needs to hoist them on his shoulders and carry them through this tough stretch and you know? He is doing it right now and he is showing the world that he belongs alongside #87 as best in the world.
As I write this “Random Rant” about #71, he has vaulted into the number one spot in league scoring, he has had 5 goals in his last 2 games and he is averaging 1.39 points per game. Does that number sound familiar? Well, early in my blog I posted how he scored an average of 1.38 points when he won the Art Ross trophy for the NHL’s points leader and right now he has slightly eclipsed it.
I am happy to say I am glad that Geno has proved the critics wrong and I will admit I was doubting him the last few years. I needed to see him take that step, play with that desire to be “the guy” on that team instead of take a back seat to Sidney. He is doing it as we speak.
My fellow Pittsburgh Penguins fans, we are witnessing the return of “The King.” He had showed up briefly before, here and there but did not stay long. This made us miss him and wish that he would someday find his way back. King Evgeni “Geno” Malkin has reclaimed his place in the hockey world and has cemented his spot along side Sidney Crosby as one of the best in the world.
Welcome back Geno, we’ve missed you!