Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Boy Becomes a Man and a Night of Comebacks

When Evgeni Malkin started his much anticipated career he did so with a a bucket of drama after defecting from his home nation of Russia and being snuck into the country and then with a bang ultimately setting the record for number of consecutive games with a goal to start a career (6 games). He would ultimately go on to win the Calder Trophy over Peter Stastny with 33 goals and 52 assists in 78 games. While he showed tremendous skill and scored a number of highlight reel goals, he also displayed his youth. He frequently failed to show the level of tenacity that his Russian counterpart Alexander Ovechkin displays in battling for the puck and producing opportunities. He wasn't able to use his size particularly well, often tried to do too much and usually failed to show the physical side of his game that made him a legend in Russia. Overall, he generally remained in the shadow of his teammate Sidney Crosby in most places other than Pittsburgh. Everyone saw the potential, it was only a matter of time before we'd see what he could really do.

Now, as the end of the season draws near and the deadline is less than a week away, Evgeni Malkin has the Pittsburgh Penguins in position to be buyers at pending free agent market. He's also done so without the help of Sidney Crosby. The Penguins have had to battle adversity this year after losing their starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a dreaded high ankle sprain, from which he still has not returned but is on the verge, and then Sidney Crosby to that same injury. Many expected the Penguins to fall apart but Ty Conklin came off the bench and has been absolutely outstanding. So much so that I can't imagine he'll immediately go back to the bench once Fleury does return. The other reason that the Penguins have thrived in the absence of two key players is the development and maturity of Evgeni Malkin. Since Crosby's injury Malkin has 27 points in 14 games and has only failed to register a point in one of those 14 games. As a result, the Pens are 8-4-2. Last night, was no different as Evgeni Malkin lead his team to a 3rd period comeback that showed just how far he's come. Malkin got the primary assist on the first goal just 5 minutes into the final stanza as he found Colby Armstrong in the slot for a wrister over Vokoun's shoulder. Malkin later took a penalty that produced a 4 on 4 situation but was bailed out by his team and he re-paid them in full. Malkin came out of the box looking like a man possessed as he refused to give up the puck and almost singlehandedly turned the tide of the game. as he came out of the box flying. With about 4 minutes minutes left in the 3rd, Malkin collected the puck on the left wing, created space and made a beautiful cross-ice pass to the opposite point. Vokoun was able to fight off the shot, but Malkin swept in from behind the net, recollected the puck, dangled his way around the defender and made a nearly identical, and equally beautiful pass, back to the other side of the ice to Ryan Whitney who fired a wrister off of the suddenly streaking Ryan Malone and into the net. The game had a feeling of destiny to it as it just seemed like there was no way Pittsburgh wasn't going to tie the game. Not only did they tie it, but Malkin was able to draw a call by using his speed and put the Penguins on the powerplay with just over a minute left in the game. With only 23 seconds left Ryan Malone swept in along the right wing, protected the puck with his body, dragged it around the defender and forced his way to the front of the goal, tapping the puck in between Vokoun's legs before getting nailed and landing on top of the sprawling goaltender. Pittsburgh had completed the comeback and Ryan Malone scored two goals in just under three minutes for a hard fought victory, but Malkin was involved in every goal and his two assists pushed him ahead of Alexander Ovechkin for the league-lead in points with 79. Right now, Sidney Crosby is practicing and nearing a return, but it's Malkin's team at the moment and Crosby may have to share those reins as they both prepare to lead the Penguins into the playoffs.

While one team sores, any team stumbles as the New York Rangers were involved in a historic game last night with Montreal, but it's not the kind of history a team wants to make. The Rangers were up 5 to nothing about half way through the game before the walls came tumbling down. The Rangers would allow 2 goals in the second and 3 in the third, including two within a span of 9 seconds, to force overtime and eventually a shootout where they lost on a goal by Saky Koivu. The Rangers spent some coin during free agency in the off-season adding Drury and Gomez, but it all seems for naught as this team has shown no consistency and is in danger of missing the playoffs.

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