It would only be a matter of time, though, before Malkin would have to step out and establish himself as something more than Crosby's enigmatic No. 2. The opportunity came on Jan. 18, 2008, when Crosby slammed feet first into the end boards at Mellon Arena and suffered a high ankle sprain that would sideline him for 29 games. Without the Penguins' captain and leading scorer, the hockey world wondered how the team would respond. Some even went so far as to question their playoff chances that spring, despite the fact that they were leading the division at the time of Crosby's injury.
"That's when [Malkin] elevated his game," says Gonchar, who played with Malkin in Russia during the 2004-05 lockout. "That was the real turning point for him."
Malkin quickly put every concern to rest, scoring 54 points in the last 36 games of the season. With 16 multi-point games during that 11-week span, he catapulted himself into the team lead in scoring and Hart Trophy consideration. Proving just how capable he was of carrying this team to victory, Malkin led the Penguins to their first division title in 11 years with his 106-point season, a total second only to that of Washington's Alex Ovechkin.
With Crosby back in the lineup by season's end, the Penguins brought the league's most-talented one-two punch into the playoffs. After two relatively quick rounds, beating the Senators in four and the Rangers in five, Crosby and Malkin shared the league lead in postseason points per game, averaging 1.56. But the physical Flyers presented a different test, one Malkin perhaps didn't see coming.
"I'm just tired," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review during last year's Stanley Cup finals. "Practice is long. The season is long. I feel bad.... Mentally, I need a change."
In a sport that scoffs at excuses—legitimate or not—Malkin was admitting that his tank was empty two weeks too early. And without a point and -3 through the first four games of the final, he was lambasted for becoming the Invisible Man. "Last year, things didn't go our way," Talbot says now. "And Malkin felt bad about it, but I think he was just tired. You know, Sid got hurt and missed 29 games last year, and Geno [Evgeni is Russian for Eugene] had to carry the team on his shoulders basically.... He just couldn't do it anymore."
"[Last year] I'm learning how to play in playoffs," Malkin said during this year's Stanley Cup run. "And I was a little bit sick, [but] now I feel great."
Indeed, after drawing criticism for seemingly checking out early, he was the Penguins' most consistent performer this spring. He scored at least eight points in each series, including 10 against the run-and-gun Washington Capitals and their fearsome scorers Alexander Semin and Ovechkin. Against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals, where he began to flame out last year, Malkin was simply inspired, scoring six goals in four games. In Pittsburgh's 7-4 win in Game 2, he capped his first career playoff hat trick with a highlight-reel goal that left everyone thinking, "How did he do that?"
"It's called the Geno for a reason," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said of the eponymous play.
After taking the draw midway through the third period, the lightning quick center pushed forward, picked up the puck on his stick and swept around the net. With Dennis Seidenberg glued to his back, Malkin skated out from behind the net, and back facing his target, he backhanded the puck up over the shoulder of Carolina goalie Cam Ward, making the water bottle dance before the red light went off, signaling a rainstorm of hats to shower down on the Mellon Arena ice and Carolina's hopes.