Despite his talent, Pens' Malkin lurks in shadows
PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin has done the nearly impossible.
The Pittsburgh Penguins center has become one of the world's top hockey players while remaining a virtual ghost.
On a team full of high-profile, media-savvy players starting with Sidney Crosby and including Gary Roberts, Marian Hossa, Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, Malkin is an anachronism.
His discomfort with the English language or, more to the point, his discomfort with using English in the presence of the media, allows him to pass wraithlike through the Penguins' dressing room.
Without doing a detailed media analysis, it would not be a surprise if athletic trainer Chris Stewart and equipment manager Dana Heinze have appeared in more newspaper and TV reports than Malkin.
A day after the Penguins rolled over the Ottawa Senators 5-3 -- a game in which Malkin turned in a second straight three-point performance -- a search of the reams of the reportage that followed turned up a single quote from Malkin that was provided through a Russian interpreter.
Former Penguins defenseman Phil Bourque, now a broadcast analyst in Pittsburgh, joked that there's a sense Malkin is more robot than human. He slides out of Mellon Arena, goes home, plugs himself into a charger, and hangs himself up on the back of the door until it's time to come back to the rink and do it again.
It is an interesting dynamic.
Malkin, the rookie of the year last season, finished second in NHL scoring this season with 106 points. When Crosby went down in January with a high ankle sprain, coach Michel Therrien met with Malkin to explain that he didn't want him to change his game -- now he would be the offensive face of the team. To make sure Malkin got it, Therrien asked Gonchar, with whom Malkin has lived since coming to the NHL, to join them.
"If I have to have a really private meeting with Malkin, I bring Gonchar," Therrien said.
Whatever Therrien said -- or more importantly, however Gonchar translated the message -- it stuck. Malkin took control of the team offensively with 36 goals in his last 47 regular-season games. Malkin had multipoint efforts in five of the last 12 regular-season games as the Pens seized the Atlantic Division crown.
In the playoffs, Malkin has become an even greater force.
Using his 6-foot-3 frame and exceptional puck-handling skills, Malkin has been the team's offensive catalyst, setting up linemate Sykora for three goals.
There have been comparisons to the Penguins' Hall of Fame owner, Mario Lemieux. But that ignores Malkin's ability to play the body, his defensive game down low in the zone -- where he rarely loses a battle for the puck.
"I'm not big on comparisons," said Bourque, who won Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and '92.
But what Bourque sees in Malkin is the uncanny ability to be able to find another gear at the most crucial time. "That's one thing I got to witness firsthand with Mario," he said.
He noted Malkin's ability to make a play at the end of a shift, when others often make mistakes. And there is no doubt the Senators, at this stage of the series, simply have no answer for Malkin.
Bourque sees in Malkin a player with a rare hunger to improve.
"I don't think it's to be a two-year thing or a three-year thing," Bourque said.
But as his star continues to ascend -- and many believe Malkin is second only to Alexander Ovechkin as the top offensive player in the league -- the disconnect between the player's impact on the game and the player as a human being likewise grows.
"You don't know the person," Bourque said. "That's got to change, and I think he understands this.
"It can't keep going on because part of being a great athlete is also dealing with the media."
The Penguins employ an interpreter who is available after most home games if the media wants to chat with Malkin. But on the road and at practices, Malkin exists in almost a media vacuum. It is not unusual for role players such as Georges Laraque, Max Talbot and Robert Scuderi to spend far more time interacting with the media and fans than Malkin does.
In his second year of NHL play, Malkin is more comfortable with English.
"He definitely understands more than he lets on, I think," Ryan Malone said Saturday after an optional skate in which Malkin did not take part.
"He fits right in with the group of guys."
Jordan Staal, another of the Pens' young core, said Malkin loves practical jokes, including shooting pucks at unsuspecting teammates during practice.
"It's quite annoying at times, but it's just the way he is," Staal joked.
Staal acknowledged that folks outside the dressing room might not have a sense of Malkin the person.
"The guys in the dressing room have a sense of it, and I think that's all that matters," Staal said.
Earlier this year, Staal was joking with Malkin one morning in Atlanta. When reporters gathered around Crosby's stall, as they do on a daily basis, Staal looked at Malkin and suggested that if he never learned to speak English, he would never have to put up with that kind of attention.
And maybe there is something to that. Crosby has emerged as the universal face of the new NHL while continuing to grow as one of the game's finest players. Malkin has taken a different route to the top of the talent class, perhaps cocooned by Crosby's magnetism.
The situation is in marked contrast to the one in Washington, where countryman Ovechkin has embraced the spotlight and his role as the future of a franchise. Ovechkin, outgoing and boisterous, has done so even though he knew little English when he came to the NHL in 2005-06. But there he was on NBC during an intermission Saturday afternoon setting up the second game of the Washington-Philadelphia series.
Ovechkin, appearing with defenseman Mike Green, was asked which Caps player the Flyers would key on in Game 2. "Brashear," Ovechkin quipped, referring to the enforcer who opened the scoring in Game 1 of the series Friday. It was funny.
The problem for Malkin is that he is becoming too good to remain a ghost.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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