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Malkin possesses what teammate Pascal Dupuis calls the Superman gene. Glasses come off. One-timer comes out. When asked if he would like to appropriate anything from Malkin's game, Crosby gushes, "There's a lot I would take, starting with his one-timer.... I really appreciate his game and really enjoy playing with him." The 5'11" Crosby would also like some of Malkin's looming size to allow him to protect the puck even better, but he notes, "That's science."
"I think Geno puts more pressure on his shoulders being the main guy," Letang says. "With Sid out, teams are paying more attention to him. They're playing him harder. And he likes that. Some guys want it easy. He wants it hard. He loves the pressure. He loves to bring the A game when there's a lot of adversity."
Russian Proverb Number 3: Kto ne hochet rabotat' letom, budet golodat' zimoi. (They must hunger in winter that will not work in summer.)
If a hungry Malkin is skating figure eights around the NHL this winter—he is second to the Lightning's Steven Stamkos with 37 goals—it is because he did work in summer.
He worked harder than he ever had because for the first time in his 25 years he felt he had no choice. "Maybe before," he says, "little bit lazy," although it was less a case of indolence than the ridiculous ease with which he had mastered hockey. He always had just, you know, played. Then on Feb. 4, 2011, when Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers fell on his right knee in the corner, playtime was over. Malkin had shredded his ACL and MCL. He had surgery. Malkin rehabbed feverishly and even implored Bylsma (to no avail) to play him in Game 7 of the first-round playoff series against the Lightning, a welcome-to-summer 1--0 Pittsburgh loss.
Malkin returned to Russia embarrassed. For the first time in the NHL—indeed for the first time since he was a skinny 19-year-old playing for his hometown team—he had failed to average at least a point per game last season in his 43 matches. (Since 2006--07 only two players—Crosby and Ovechkin—have been point-per-game men every season.) More than a streak had vanished. He had lost his command of the game.
To retrieve something he had once done as well as anyone in the world, he turned to Mike Kadar, the Penguins' strength and conditioning coach. Kadar spent almost three weeks training him in Moscow. Gonchar, who owns a condominium on the same floor there, noticed the zeal with which Malkin embraced the work. "He hadn't always used his talents or pushed 100 percent," Gonchar says. "The injury helped him mature. It reminded him how much he loved playing the game and made him realize what he had to do to keep playing it at his level. People were forgetting about him [in the discussion of great players]. And that was extra motivation."
Now Malkin's kick-and-giggle games of hallway soccer have been augmented by an actual pregame regimen of stretching. Then he hops over the boards for 21 or so minutes per game and stretches credulity, like he did in mid-February. Fresh off a five-point game a night earlier against the Jets, Malkin scored twice and was on for the other two Pittsburgh goals as he tilted the ice against Tampa Bay in what Bylsma called "our best [example] of playing Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey." The display of virtuosity was reminiscent not of the other bear in the lair but of the man who signs Malkin's checks, co-owner Mario Lemieux.
In Pittsburgh newspapers the next morning Bylsma, Kunitz and defenseman Matt Niskanen were drooling high praise of their fabulous center. Malkin was not made available to the press.
Russian Proverb Number 4: Horoshaya rabota sama govorit za sebya. (Good work speaks for itself.)