Commentary

It's time to put this Malkin issue in the proper perspective

Updated: June 1, 2008, 8:26 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The last place you're likely to find perspective is when you're staring down elimination in the Stanley Cup finals.

Everything is finality and doom and hoping against hope.

And if there is one thing that seems to be lacking as these finals slide toward the inevitable, it's perspective when it comes to Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Detroit Red Wings have shut down Evgeni Malkin in the Cup finals, limiting the skating room he craves to create offense.

Has any player in recent history taken a greater nosedive from lauded to lambasted in such a short period of time as the talented Russian forward?

After wracking up 18 points in his first 12 games, Malkin has just one point and is a minus-3 over his past six games, and he has become a lightning rod for criticism as the Penguins' Stanley Cup dream slowly fades to black.

After going 12-2 through the first three rounds, the Pens now trail the Red Wings 3-1 in the Stanley Cup finals and have scored just four goals through the first four games. The Wings can wrap up their fourth Stanley Cup since 1997 with a win on home ice Monday night.

We're no different than anyone else. We have described Malkin's recent play as woeful or worse. We have wondered about him hitting the wall and his precipitous drop-off in production as playoff games have grown in importance.

It's been a veritable conga line of abuse, and national broadcasters and commentators have attacked him like kids with a stick in front of a pinata full of chocolate.

After the Penguins' 2-1 loss in Game 4 on Saturday, which pushed the Penguins to the brink of elimination, Malkin was seen slumped in his dressing room stall with his head in his hands.

"We're supporting him," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien told reporters after the team arrived in Detroit on Sunday afternoon. "I met him before the game to show him that we believe in him, because he's a kid that we really believe in. Things are not going the way that he'd like to or we'd like to, as well. But in the meantime, he's working hard and he's trying."

If you read the press clippings and heard the analysis from the past seven or eight games, you'd think Malkin is a candidate for the first flight back to Magnitogorsk, Russia, instead of being the second part of the Penguins' dynamic duo for the ages along with Sidney Crosby.

While Crosby has risen to these playoff moments, seeming to draw strength from the importance of the games as he continues to lead all playoff scorers with 24 points, Malkin has shrunk from them. Because the two are seen in tandem, Crosby's successes, even if they haven't translated to team success, have painted Malkin's failures in stark relief.

After being ordinary in his first playoff experience a season ago, Malkin seized the moment during the regular season when Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain in January. Malkin became a dominant player, finishing second in NHL scoring and earning a nomination for the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP.

Now, the well has gone dry and Malkin seems powerless to find water when the team is dying of thirst.

Has Malkin been treated unfairly?

"That's not for me to say," Therrien said.

His play speaks for itself, and what it says isn't pretty. He has no points in the finals and seems suddenly tentative with the puck when he gets it, which isn't often enough.

But let's have a little compassion. If not compassion, then let's at least have a little perspective.

Malkin is not yet 22 years old. He has never played close to this many postseason games in his hockey life. His first NHL playoff games were a year ago, and he played in five of them.

"He's an important player for our team, and with good reason," Therrien said. "He's facing a tough time. He's a good kid. He means well. And it's not a matter that he doesn't want to have success. He wants success."

Teammate Jordan Staal said Sunday Malkin will produce when it's most important. Still, it seems that train has left, at least for this season. Instead, one wonders what the long-term impact of this late-playoff swoon and the accompanying pillorying in the hockey media might be on Malkin and his evolution.

In some ways, he's an easy target. He speaks little English, or rather he is uncomfortable talking in English. Earlier in the series, when he met with a group of print reporters, he admitted he was tired, something most players wouldn't acknowledge to the press. Then he told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he wasn't comfortable with his positioning at the point on the power play, which annoyed the coaching staff.

If Crosby, who is North American and accessible (he has done at least one press conference and often two almost every day since the playoffs began April 9), had suffered such a playoff letdown, would he be subject to the hammering Malkin is now experiencing?

We doubt it.

When a player can't defend himself or explain his mind-set, it's easier to tee off on him. And don't forget the xenophobia that has often been part of the game, especially at playoff time. Remember the old chestnut about teams needing to avoid being too European if they wanted to win a Cup?

The Detroit Red Wings, heavily dominated with Swedes and Russians, are about to dismiss that yet again as they are on the verge of another Cup win, and there's more than a little irony to that fact.

Remember when it was a player named Pavel Datsyuk who couldn't cut the mustard when the going got tough, at least according the pundits? In Datsyuk's first playoff experience in 2002, he had three goals and three assists in 21 games as the Wings won the Cup. Hardly a dominating performance.

Then, over the next 21 postseason games as the Red Wings went through a change in personnel and coaching staff, Datsyuk had zero goals and nine assists. Every spring, people rolled their eyes at the Wings' chances with Datsyuk on board.

But last spring, Datsyuk, almost 30, broke out with 16 points in 18 games. He's followed that up with 20 points in 20 games this spring and his name is now being bandied about as a potential Conn Smythe candidate as playoff MVP.

Seems like a long time ago that Datsyuk was getting the Malkin treatment, no?

Let's assume history sides with Detroit and the Wings win the Stanley Cup. Does this experience harden Malkin, and make him a better player? Or does it settle in his soul and raise issues of self-doubt? Does it mangle his confidence when so much of what he was about was having the confidence to let his skills take him where they wanted, mostly to the opposing goal?

One likes to think it won't, because a talent like Malkin is a terrible thing to waste.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.