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февраля 2009 года.
Malkin stepping into the limelight // Pittsburgh Tribune
The size 11.5 boots belong to a reserved 22-year-old who has produced more points than any NHL player over the past two seasons, a gentle giant one teammate labeled "a complete clown" for his behind-closed-doors behavior and the man a former league MVP and scoring champion identified as "the most talented player in the world."
Those are some big skates Penguins center Evgeni "Geno" Malkin has to fill.
Of course, nothing about Malkin's transformation from hockey's best and quietest rookie in 2006 to one of its most talked-about, if not talkative, players today has proven easy.
"He just makes it look that way," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "It's easy to watch what he's doing this year, last year and since he came here and forget that he left everything he knew three years ago - his entire world in Russia, his family, friends and life -- to play in North America, where the game is played on a smaller rink. It's a different style, really.
"All that, and he's one of the best players on the planet every night. I don't think people mention that enough. I get the feeling a lot of people take for granted how tough it was and probably is at times still for him. The people that know Geno best know what he's gone though to get where he is right now."
Right now, Malkin is the NHL scoring leader, a Penguins leader as alternate captain and, according to San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, "probably the best player in the world."
"He can do it all," said Thornton, the 2006 MVP and scoring champion. "He can shoot as well as anybody. He can pass as well as anybody. He makes big plays when his team needs it. He uses his size to his advantage, and he's such a strong skater, with that next-gear burst.
"When you have that size and that skill -- hey, Malkin's the most talented player in the world. I think he's also the best."
Magnificient, they dare say
Malkin's skill is a marvel to teammates and opponents.
At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, he is a tall pivot with a lanky frame that he uses to shield the puck from opposing players.
"He's kind of a physical freak," Penguins center Jordan Staal said. "You can't get the puck off him when he really wants to keep it. I've seen a lot of guys try, and they've all failed."
Blessed with deceptive speed, a hard and accurate shot, hawk-like vision, inherent awareness and climb on my back, boys game-changing flair - he recently scored twice and set up a goal in the third period of a 4-3 overtime home win against Tampa Bay - Malkin has drawn a particular comparison that no player would invite.
No player that wears a skating penguin crest, anyway.
"Maybe," Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky said of Malkin, "he's a little bit like Mario."
No faint praise, considering it comes from the NHL's all-time leading scorer and refers to a fellow Hall of Famer, current Penguins majority co-owner Mario Lemieux.
Even the most conservative evaluations of Malkin, who had averaged a league-best 1.35 points in his past 138 games prior to Saturday, turn effusive after a few seconds.
"He's definitely one of the best five forwards in the league, no question," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said, adding that Malkin stands out because of his physicality.
"He's so strong on his skates. He can beat you one-on-one. He's not just a goal-scorer. He's a shooter and a passer, and he's really good at drawing attention and finding the open guy."
Malkin's teammates, including 2007 MVP and scoring champion Sidney Crosby, do not dispute these assessments. Of course, what the Penguins like best about Malkin is the stuff most people miss because, as center Max Talbot noted, "people tend to treat him differently."
"Only the (Pittsburgh) media talks to him, mostly, and a lot of fans - look, they love Geno, they go crazy for him, but he doesn't get approached like you might think. It's like people have heard or read he doesn't speak English, so his personality isn't really out there because nobody outside of our team has taken time to know what he's really like."
An unspoken Arrangement
Crosby is the Penguins' captain, has spent much of the season as the NHL's second-leading scorer and the majority of his career as the face of the league. The Nova Scotia native speaks more French, his second language, before one game in Montreal than Malkin talks English, his second language, over a week in Pittsburgh.
Malkin did not agree to his first English-only interview with local media until early last season. He still is rarely pressed to answer questions following Penguins' practices and games -- and he admitted that "talking every day" isn't high on his priority list, hence his occasional quick escapes or ducks into the medical room.
"I'd just rather play hockey," Malkin said. "I look at Sid after practice -- and it's a lot. I don't know how he can play the game like he does after doing all that. It's amazing. He does so much. Because of Sid, I can just play. That's good for me."
Crosby, who has placed phone calls to reporters upon requests through the Penguins' media relations staff, does not believe Malkin deserves criticism for occasional reluctance to answer questions in a foreign language.
Crosby admitted he was amused upon first hearing of speculation that he and Malkin had an arrangement in which Crosby would handle media responsibilities to afford Malkin time to concentrate on hockey.
"If we have an arrangement, it's to do what's in the best interest of this team," Crosby said. "For me and Geno, it's to make sure we help each other be better.
"That (media) stuff comes with being comfortable, and it will for Geno. Maybe he's not completely there with the media, but I can honestly say he's become one of the guys around us -- and that's been fun to see, really fun.
"When he wasn't speaking as much, it was kind of hard to understand what kind of guy he was. We've had three years to get to know him, and what we've all learned is that he's an easy-going guy."
Malkin also has shown a comical side.
The day before the Penguins faced Detroit at home in an anticipated rematch of the Stanley Cup Final, Malkin was among a group of teammates first off the ice after practice. When the dressing room opened to the media, Malkin, smiling all the while, waved reporters and cameramen toward teammate Matt Cooke.
"Detroit is easy," Malkin said in a sarcastic tone. "Cookie will get a hat trick."
Cooke, an agitator, not a goal-scorer, rolled his eyes.
Malkin did likewise before adding: "Matt Cooke, hat trick, write it down ...
For Russia, with love
Orpik, one of Malkin's earliest and closest friends among the Penguins, described him as "a proud guy who cares more than anybody knows."
A list of what Malkin said he cares about: winning the Stanley Cup ("my dream"); family ("wonderful"); teammates ("great guys"); his new suburban Pittsburgh house ("nice, sometimes dirty"); post-game massages ("they really help"); and his mother's borscht ("so good").
He said money -- he signed a five-year extension worth $43.5 million in July -- is of no concern. He also will not lose a minute of sleep if he fails to hold off Crosby or Washington forward Alex Ovechkin for the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer.
"I don't think about it," Malkin said. "Nobody believes me, though."
On the subject of Ovechkin, his Russian rival and the only player selected ahead of Malkin in the 2004 entry draft: Their two-year feud, which during Penguins-Capitals games turned nasty, was laid to rest last month in Montreal at the All-Star Game.
Their sudden shift from foes to friends occurred for one reason.
"Russia, all of that for Russia," Malkin said, acknowledging that a fellow countryman, Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk, spoke to him and Ovechkin and urged them to reconcile for the benefit of Russia's chance for gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
"We went to dinner and had a good talk," Malkin said. "(Kovalchuk) is a good guy. He said, 'You guys (were) friends, be friends again for Russia.' After that, it was all good."
Kovalchuk -- who said the confidence Malkin has gained from NHL success should give the Russian hockey team an advantage in Vancouver -- is not surprised that Malkin put aside personal differences with Ovechkin in the name of patriotism.
"He's proud to be Russian and proud to be on the national team," Kovalchuk said. "It's everything. It's a huge honor. Hockey is everything in Russia."
His Russian heritage is everything to Malkin. He spends summers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, hoping to soak up as much of those cities' histories as he can before training sessions, which begin in early July.
Malkin carries two cell phones, one for texting in Russian. The movies he watches he first views versions with Russian overdubs.
"When we ordered movies on the road, he'd only let me order ones he had seen already -- the Russian versions," Talbot said. "I think that is how he started to learn English, by watching two versions of every movie that came out, like 'Transformers.'"
Orpik said Malkin has denied taking English lessons last summer, but suspects he did so begrudgingly.
"Like a lot of Russian players, he's proud of where he comes from and himself for coming this far," Orpik said. "It's just the type of people they are. They have a tremendous sense of self pride, and Geno isn't any different.
"It's not an easy situation for him to work here, spend most of the year here and get about two months in Russia to reconnect with everything. It's almost like there is going to be two sides of him for as long as he's playing in the NHL.
"The thing is, there's a great hockey player no matter what side you see."
MALKIN ON MALKIN
Penguins star Evgeni Malkin granted the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review an exclusive 15-minute interview in English on Tuesday. Here is an excerpt:
TR: How are you different today than when you arrived in Pittsburgh in 2006 as a 20-year-old from Russia?
EM: It's not too much different. I feel comfortable now in my career. My English is a little bit better. Everything is going good.
Now I understand how to play in the NHL. The first year was hard. The second was only good. Now, it's a little bit easy -- the hockey. (Laughs) Maybe I shouldn't say that.
TR: The North American hockey media often refers to you as "shy" and "uncomfortable." Does that bother you?
EM: I don't care if people think that way. I care what my teammates (think). I care about playing hockey, helping the Penguins win.
TR: Do you wish people would speak to you more often in English, maybe get to know you better?
EM: Yeah. (Laughs) But not like with Sid.