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The brilliance is hardly a scoop. He has been a sublime player practically since he poked a loose puck through Martin Brodeur's pads in October 2006 for the first of his 195 NHL goals. But as a Wi-Fi outage indirectly reminds us of the wonders of a wired world, we still need an occasional Malkin rampage to notice a player whose brilliance is all too often taken for granted.
Russian Proverb Number 2: Dva medvedya v odnoi berloge ne zhivut. (Two bears don't lie in one lair.)
When Malkin arrived in 2006 (after skipping out on Magnitogorsk during a training camp in Helsinki, obtaining a fast-track visa to the United States and winning a court battle to legally join the team that had drafted him No. 2, behind Ovechkin, two years earlier), Crosby, then in his second NHL season, asked the newcomer where he wanted to be in the meticulously choreographed ballet of the Penguins' pregame introductions.
Last. Malkin preferred to be last.
Crosby mentioned he was the final guy but....
Malkin interrupted. "Three years Super League," he said, and Crosby nodded, ceding pride of place in the time-honored manner to the veteran—even if Malkin had been seasoned 11 time zones away.
Malkin and Crosby are the proverbial bears. They agreeably share a dressing-room lair, perhaps because they read the game at the same expert level. When Crosby is healthy, they work together on the power play. When Pittsburgh presses for a late goal, Malkin often shifts to Crosby's wing. Combining the two best centers on a team since Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg in Colorado—or maybe Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in Edmonton—should make Malkin even more of a threat. Theoretically. "Two of the top five players in the world playing together should be dynamic," Bylsma says. "And the power play should create opportunities for two great players. Why hasn't it? I don't have an answer to that. I'm not quite that good of a coach yet."
The curious phenomenon was first noticeable in 2007--08 when Malkin scored 46 points in the 29 games that Crosby missed with an ankle injury. In the 315 games Malkin has played with Crosby in the lineup, he has averaged .435 goals and 1.16 points. (Malkin had 10 points in the eight matches they played together this season before Crosby again was sidelined with concussionlike symptoms.) In 92 career games without Crosby, Malkin's output jumps significantly—to .630 goals per game and 1.41 points per game. In his first 82 games without Crosby—the length of an NHL regular season, in other words—Malkin had 112 points. In the past decade only five players, including Malkin with an NHL-leading 113 points in '08--09, have surpassed that total.
Malkin simultaneously considers the numbers and gathers his improving English. As a schoolboy in Magnitogorsk he studied English for one hour a week for five years, the kind of pedagogy guaranteed to take a student no further than "See Spot run!" When he landed in Pittsburgh, defenseman Sergei Gonchar became his new best friend, his translator and sometimes his crutch.
The gregarious Malkin made an effort to assimilate—in the 2009 Stanley Cup final he astonished everyone by chirping linemate Max Talbot at a press conference for his "little bit bad hands," breaking up the room and leaving the chatty Talbot speechless—but his personality did not fully begin to emerge until Gonchar signed with the Senators in '10. "Goofy funny," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, a former roommate, describes it. Now miles past the days when he would describe his goals with the phrase "I am score," Malkin told the team he would be willing to do more interviews. (During All-Star weekend Malkin held court for more than 20 minutes and then did a TV interview, all without a translator.) Now he answers the Crosby question, "Maybe coach gives me little more time. Play little more on power play, maybe 20, 30 seconds. But not really change my game."