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THREE YEARS REMOVED FROM HIS ENTRÉE INTO the league, there are signs that Evgeni Malkin is finally getting comfortable in his new role as NHL superstar. Though normally reticent with reporters and slow to open up, Malkin channeled his inner Yakov Smirnoff at a morning press conference after the Penguins' Game 3 win during the Stanley Cup finals. Asked about his linemate Maxime Talbot, who had scored twice the night before, the Russian center explained, "I'm see how Max play; it's lots of emotion. It's never stop in skate."
He paused, then deadpanned, "Yeah, little bit bad hands. He has lot of scoring chance, not score. Just empty net. It's okay. He learns over the summer."
Talbot broke into a fit of laughter, but he should be warned about Smirnoff's Russian reversal. As the Soviet-born comedian might have said, In America, you make joke. In Russia, joke make you!
"From what [Sergei] Gonchar and [Ruslan] Fedotenko tell me, he's extremely funny," Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin says. "It's kind of obvious when he's going to carve somebody because he goes right from English into Russian, so you can't understand it. But that's one side that I don't really think people understand. People think he's kind of a quiet guy, but he's got a great sense of humor to him."
If there was anything that translated perfectly, it was Malkin's dominating play this postseason. After fading faster than a Hollywood spray tan during the last two rounds of the 2008 playoffs, he wrote his own Russian reversal, putting up a league-leading 36 points and earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. At 22, Malkin became the youngest forward to win the award, as the Penguins lifted their first Stanley Cup in 17 years.
"It's a big day [in] my life," he said moments after he accepted the award. "My friends, my parents are happy; I'm happy."
UNLIKE TEAMMATE SIDNEY CROSBY, MALKIN didn't break into the league to wild fanfare but rather under a cloak of darkness. Reminiscent of his compatriots who had defected to the United States to play hockey decades before, the Penguins' 2004 first-round draft pick left his Super League team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, at a Helsinki airport on Aug. 12, 2006, to join his new team in Pittsburgh. But this was less a question of defection than it was a case of alleged contract violation.
The Russian club, which had refused to release its prized forward, soon filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit, but Malkin contended that he had been coerced into re-signing with the team six days before he left and had given the proper two weeks notice that was required by law (Malkin gave notice on Aug. 15 and signed with the Penguins on Sept. 5). A U.S. federal judge denied Metallurg's motion for an injunction, however, freeing the center to play in Pittsburgh, though perhaps further straining relations between the two leagues.
Though the Penguins had to wait more than two years for their coveted center to arrive, it took no time at all for Malkin to prove his worth. With at least one goal in each of his first six games, he became the first rookie to achieve that feat in 89 years, and by the end of the 2006-07 season, Malkin led all rookies with 33 goals and 85 points, becoming Pittsburgh's first Calder Trophy winner since Mario Lemieux.
Despite his scoring prowess, he remained largely in the shadow of his teammate Crosby, the Penguins' other phenomenal teenage center, who had joined the team the previous season. But Malkin had no qualms with that. While Crosby became the face of the team, Malkin was happy to take the backseat and just play hockey without the burdens of postgame interviews and media scrutiny. Of course his rudimentary grasp of English made it difficult for him to communicate with reporters, but he preferred to stay out of the limelight anyway—that is, so long as he could.