By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Just about anywhere else in the NHL, Evgeni Malkin would be “The Guy.”
The captain. The unquestioned leader. The brightest star. The fulcrum around which to build a franchise.
Yet he has found comfort, peace and freedom in Pittsburgh, where the player everyone calls “Geno” has spent the last 11 years not as “The Guy” but “The Other Guy.”
That’s not a slight. How can it be when the player a few stalls over in the dressing room happens to be a good friend and the best player in the world?
Sure, if he played in another market, Malkin would be the centerpiece. Why do that when you get to chase Stanley Cups every spring with Sidney Crosby?
“I don’t want to be No. 1 in Carolina,” Malkin said on the eve of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup Final date with Nashville. “I want to be better (with) Sid.”
And occasionally more dangerous than Sid.
It’s Malkin, not Crosby, who leads the league in scoring during the playoffs. The big Russian’s power-play goal in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 Game 1 victory over the Predators gave him 25 points in 20 games, just ahead of Crosby’s 22 in 19. If the Penguins find a way to fend off Nashville and raise the Cup for a second straight year and the third time in the Crosby and Malkin era, it could be Malkin who walks away with a second Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP.
Not that Malkin is keeping track. Point out he won his Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 2012 during a season in which Crosby was limited to just 22 games due to a concussion, Malkin shrugs. When he was left off the NHL’s list of 100 greatest players released at the All-Star Break, he cracked a couple of jokes and moved on. Asked to revisit the omission over the weekend, Malkin responded with typical bluntness.
“No, I don’t care, my record is Cups,” Malkin said. “If I win like one more Cup, it’s like my record. I not think about points. It’s only team.”
If Crosby is the Penguins’ captain and conscience, Malkin is their id. While the unfailingly understated Crosby searches for the right thing to say, Malkin usually only pipes up when there’s something he needs to get off his chest.
After Pittsburgh failed to close out Ottawa in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Malkin groused about the need for him to be better even though he was the best player in black and gold on a night his sublime second-period goal gave Pittsburgh a lead it couldn’t quite hold. That’s just Geno being Geno.
“He plays a pretty emotional game,” Crosby said. “His game is skilled, but physically he’s not afraid to engage.”
That fearlessness, however, can make it appear at times that the 30-year-old is indestructible. He’s not. He gritted his way through the 2016 playoffs despite searing pain in his right elbow, not that it stopped him from putting up six goals and 12 assists as the Penguins won their fourth Cup.
The victory last spring served as validation for both Crosby and Malkin following a string of spring flameouts that left some wondering if the Penguins would be better off with just one franchise center instead of two. It’s a sentiment that always struck Malkin as odd.
Malkin fled Russia and the Kontinental Hockey League a few weeks after his 20th birthday in 2006 to begin a new life 5,500 miles away from home. He forged a bond with another generational talent, one whose own greatness has forced Malkin not to take his own for granted. He could have chosen to explore free agency three years ago but instead signed an eight-year extension with Pittsburgh long before he hit the open market.
“I sign big deal here because I feel we can win every year,” Malkin said. “I want to play with Sid long time. I want to be like — it’s good competition between me and Sid.”
While KHL officials have spoken publically about making a run at Russian stars this summer — dangling the chance to play in the Olympics after the NHL decided it would not send its players to South Korea next February as part of the bait — Malkin wants no part of it.
He’ll always be a Russian. His life, however, is now in Pittsburgh. His son, Nikita, turns 1 on Wednesday. While fatherhood has mellowed Malkin off the ice — he joked he’s gone out “zero times” since Nikita’s birth — he remains fully engaged on it.
“I come to rink every day smiling,” Malkin said. “I want to try new sticks, new skates. I’m still (excited) to play. If we win one more Cup, it’s amazing. If I win one more MVP, it’s amazing. I try and be better.”
When he’s at his best, there are few who can keep up. When the Penguins were at risk of botching a 5-on-3 power play late in the first period of Game 1, it was Malkin who took command. While his teammates searched for the perfect shot, Malkin opted to just blast one at Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne. The puck squeezed through to give the Penguins an early lead and set the tone for a three-goal outburst by the time first-period horn sounded.
A few hours later Malkin was back home, focusing on being what he calls being “a good dad, not just a good hockey dad.”
Nikita is still too young to realize what his father does for a living. Still, Malkin is well aware of the legacy he’s creating one shift at a time, one that isn’t focused on selling more No. 71 jerseys but more mid-June Cup parades through his adopted hometown.
“I know when (Nikita) growing up, he’s like 2 years old, 3 years old, he start understanding,” Malkin said. “I hope he’s little bit proud to me.”
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