PITTSBURGH — A few years ago, Evgeni Malkin wasn't considered the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins. When he was playing against Alex Ovechkin, he wasn't even considered the best Russian player on the ice.
Now, it's very possible that Malkin is the best player in the world. The superstar center leads the NHL in scoring with 55 points and has made Sidney Crosby's absence and a host of other Pittsburgh injuries seem much less devastating.
"I think he play great right now. I think he's in good shape; I think last year, when he get hurt, he miss hockey a lot," Ovechkin said. "It's good for him, and he's top player in the league — one of the top players in the league. Sometimes, when he's out there, it's dangerous. I think every team have that kind of guys on the team. Malkin right now, I think, dominates."
This particular run Malkin is on dates back eight games and includes 10 of his 25 goals and two assists. The Washington Capitals are the only team to keep him without a point during this stretch, and they'll be tasked with trying to contain him again Sunday afternoon at Consol Energy Center.
"I don't know if you can contain him totally," Caps coach Dale Hunter said. "We try to minimize his scoring chances. He's a big guy that can skate and shoot and stick-handle, so you've got a pretty good combination there. But you just have to be aware of him all the time. You can't just fall asleep for a second because he'll be on top of you and score."
Malkin's skill set makes it almost impossible to defend him perfectly. John Erskine did an admirable job in the teams' Dec. 1 meeting as he picked the 25-year-old forward's pocket and muscled him around for much of the night.
"He's a pretty strong player, so he's tough to hit off the puck. But I think you've just got to play a lot of stick-on-puck, almost make him come to you," Erskine said. "He has good hands, he's shifty, so you can't be lunging at him. You've just got to contain him, and you've got to put pressure on him all the time."
But a goal he scored against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night was a perfect example of the center being tough to guard. Given some space, he got the puck and fired a blazing one-timer that goaltender Petr Budaj didn't see until it had bounced out of the net behind him.
Erskine admitted not having seen that particular shot, but he understands the gap-control challenge.
"I think you have to be in the shooting lane and kind of split the difference with him," he said. "You can't be right on him because he can slide right off you. But you can't be too far away and give him too much room. You've got to know what split the difference is and make sure you're in the shooting lane in case you can't get him and you can block a shot."
It's likely Erskine won't be in the Caps' lineup Sunday, but his teammates are well-aware of Malkin's abilities. They might not be able to contain him completely, but they can try to knock him off his game.
"When you have a chance, you have to finish checks on him," defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. "Every good player, best players, they don't like when you finish the checks. But we have to respect him."
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