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Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) and Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) sqaure off in a first-period fight during last week’s game in Winnipeg. (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) and Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) sqaure off in a first-period fight during last week’s game in Winnipeg. (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tougher Malkin gives rising Penguins an edge Add to ...

A sign of just how far Evgeni Malkin’s NHL assimilation has come took place a week ago, in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game against the Winnipeg Jets. You probably saw it on the highlights.

The first time the Jets and Penguins played this season, Malkin made his presence felt by laying out Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler with a borderline hit, a big man delivering a crushing blow that Wheeler didn’t much appreciate.

So when they next faced off, Wheeler asked Malkin to face the music and they squared off, dropping gloves, Wheeler getting the better of the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Russian in a scrap. As they skated to the penalty box, TV cameras caught Wheeler giving Malkin a friendly tap on the shoulder, a thank you of sorts for doing the old-timey hockey thing and answering the bell.

Don Cherry gushed about the exchange on Hockey Night in Canada, and Malkin acknowledged it was the right thing to do – saying in his still occasionally fractured English that he had no issue with adhering to the NHL’s unofficial code that, for better or worse, bubbles below the surface.

Presumably, it can be a difficult thing for a player steeped in a different hockey ethic – Russia’s, not the NHL’s – to understand what’s expected when someone such Wheeler challenges him.

“But he’s learned a lot just about the culture over the years,” said Chris Kunitz, the Penguins’ long-time forward and Malkin’s current linemate. “He’s a big guy and obviously, is willing to muck it up and rough around. Some guys want to go around you and make it easy. Gino wants to play a tough game. And when he’s on, he’s one of those guys, where it can happen in bunches for him. In a three-to-five-game stretch, he can put up crazy numbers.”

Malkin is in the midst of one of those stretches, 10 points in six games heading into Wednesday night’s date with the Philadelphia Flyers. With a win, the Penguins would move into first place in the overall NHL standing, ahead of their main Metropolitan Division rivals, the Washington Capitals.

Malkin presents a unique challenge to teams because he is both brawny and skilled, and therefore can beat you in a number of ways.

Pittsburgh’s surge is in no small part due to Malkin’s strong play of late. The second player chosen in the 2004 entry draft behind countryman Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals, Malkin stayed an extra year in Russia to play for a Canadian coach, Dave King, in his hometown, the steel city of Magnitogorsk.

Ovechkin, along with Malkin’s Pittsburgh teammate Sidney Crosby, became the post-lockout faces of the NHL, but it was Malkin’s arrival a year later that solidified the Penguins as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Malkin won the Calder Trophy in 2007 as the NHL’s rookie of the year; and has subsequently won the Hart Trophy (as NHL MVP in 2012), the Conn Smythe trophy (as playoff MVP in 2009), plus two NHL scoring titles (2009, 2012).

Like Crosby, he has had his share of injuries, which is why he had only 644 games on his NHL résumé going into the season (even though he produced an eye-popping 760 points over that span).

But while Ovechkin is still chasing his first Stanley Cup title, Malkin has won two and been to the final a third time. Generally, he and Crosby work together on the team’s first power-play unit, but play on separate lines at even strength, which creates all kinds of match-up issues for opposing teams.

“He’s a competitor, that’s probably the biggest thing about Gino, just the way he competes,” Crosby explained. “When he’s going and he’s got possession of the puck, or he wants the puck, it’s not going to be fun trying to get it off him, and it’s not going to be fun to stop him.

“He just has that ability to take over a shift or make a big play in the game. There are very few guys who can almost singlehandedly do that – but he’s one. When you see him going like he is, and dominate the way he can, that’s big for us. The way he’s playing right now, he’s really motivated and it’s pretty much impossible to stop him.”

Malkin is fifth in the NHL scoring race this season with 72 points in 61 games. He is only four points back of the leaders, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Chicago’s Patrick Kane, both of whom have played eight more games than him.

Malkin hasn’t played a full NHL season since 2008-09, but if he stays healthy the rest of the way, he could get to 75, his highest total in five years. If the Penguins have any designs on defending the Stanley Cup they won last year, they will need another big push from the big centre.

Flames defenceman Matt Bartkowski is from Pittsburgh and was playing for the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League when the Penguins made it to the 2007-08 Stanley Cup final. A year later, Bartkowski was a freshman at Ohio State when the Penguins won the championship and Malkin was playoff MVP.

“I don’t know if there’s a better one-two punch in the league than Crosby and Malkin,” said Bartkowski, who praised Malkin for “his strength, his range and his ability to protect the puck. He moves side to side as well as anybody – and he’s also one of those guys with a high hockey IQ, who knows what’s going to happen before it happens.

“There’s only a few of them in the league – and they happen to have two of them.”

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Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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