- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

PITTSBURGH | There is so much attention bestowed upon Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin that Evgeni Malkin often seems like the NHL’s third wheel.

While Ovechkin and Crosby were rookies three years ago - just in time to play vital roles in helping the NHL rebuild from a season-long lockout - Malkin didn’t join the Pittsburgh Penguins until the following season. Add difficulties learning English and a perceived lack of personality, and the result was the limelight seldom focusing on the star center.

Well, if Malkin’s play on the ice this season isn’t enough to wedge him into the Crosby-Ovechkin Club, any concerns about his persona may soon be forgotten.

There always have been rumors about another side of Malkin, a side his teammates have said the rest of the world doesn’t get to see. On Wednesday, an off day from the Stanley Cup Finals, the precocious Russian finally flashed a glimpse of that hidden identity.

Malkin sat between Max Talbot and Sergei Gonchar, fielded questions and did not shy away from the stage. He was asked about playing with Talbot, and his response left this international group of hockey media in a fit of laughter.

“Yeah, little bit bad hands. He has lot of scoring chance, not score - just empty net. It’s OK - he learns over the summer,” he said. “No, I like playing with him. It’s lots of emotion skating, and he plays the whole game nonstop.”

When everyone in the room had calmed down, Talbot responded, “I’m speechless right now - thanks, Geno.”

For the second consecutive year Malkin is a finalist for the Hart Trophy, given to the league MVP, and captured the Art Ross Trophy this season by leading the NHL with 113 points. Last year he finished second to Ovechkin both in the scoring and MVP races, though his season ended with a thud.

After a great effort in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia, he had only two goals and three assists in Pittsburgh’s last 10 playoff games - including no points in the first four contests of the Cup finals against Detroit.

This year Malkin’s postseason play has trended upward. He lit up the Carolina Hurricanes with six goals and nine points in an Eastern finals sweep and had a hand in Pittsburgh’s first five goals against Detroit before Talbot’s empty-net marker in Game 3. His 33 points lead Crosby’s 29 for the most in this postseason and are two away from being the most in any postseason since 1993.

“What I’ve seen this year is probably the confidence level,” Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. “I remember him back in Russia and what he was capable of. Now it seems like he matured a little bit more and he’s more comfortable on the ice and with his partners and with the game. That’s why he’s playing at his best.”

Malkin’s output will continue to be of greater importance than normal because Detroit coach Mike Babcock has been matching top defensive forward Henrik Zetterberg and the elite pairing of defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski against Crosby’s line.

Crosby has had a bit of bad luck, hitting the inside of the post in Game 1 and being thwarted by Zetterberg diving across the goal crease in Game 2, but overall he has been stymied by the trio. As the home team, the Penguins made the final line change during stoppages in Game 3, but Babcock still found ways to get his defensive matchup on the ice against Crosby.

“It does leave the onus on our other guys to play our game and get to the offensive zone to take some pressure off just one guy scoring and one line scoring,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think as a team we need to do a better job playing in the offensive zone and winning faceoffs and keeping pressure on them. That doesn’t allow them to get that change.”

Bylsma has been Malkin’s coach only since mid-February, but he also has seen the way his Russian center continues to open up more. Earlier this season an episode of “Pens TV” on the team’s Web site featured Malkin cooking pirogies with host Alyonka Larionov, daughter of Hall of Fame center Igor Larionov.

Still, his ribbing of Talbot on Wednesday was the first time Malkin, with his still-developing grasp of English, showed off his comedic chops to such a large media contingent.

“I think it’s tough to see from the outside, but it doesn’t take long when you are in the room and you see him,” Bylsma said. “That’s not odd for him to crack up the room or say something that gets a laugh or a joke. Of all the guys in that room, he probably likes a joke more than the next guy.

“I’ve been asked the question or alluded to the fact that maybe he doesn’t understand [English well]. He’s the first guy to laugh at my jokes. That’s why I like him.”

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