Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's surprising how often hockey pundits fool themselves into believing Evgeni Malkin is having a bad series.
There was a point in Pittsburgh's second-round series against Washington when it seemed that the Capitals had figured out how to neutralize the Penguins forward.
Sidney Crosby did, in fact, carry the Penguins to the seven-game series victory over Washington in the conference semifinals, but Malkin began flexing his muscles late in that set and has continued to dominate in the East finals against Carolina.
After posting nine points (4 goals, 5 assists) in a six-game series against Philadelphia in the opening round, Malkin had just one goal and two assists through the first four games against Washington. He then exploded for seven points (1g, 6a) in the final three tests against the Caps, and has continued his tear with four goals and two helpers in the opening two games against the Hurricanes. The inability to contain Malkin is ultimately the reason Carolina is staring at a two games-to-none deficit in the best-of-seven series.
All told, the Russian superstar has 10 goals and 25 points in his first 15 games of the 2009 playoffs. That's already three more points than Malkin had in 20 games during Pittsburgh's run to last spring's Stanley Cup Finals.
In many ways this season has turned out to be the Year of Malkin in the NHL. The 22-year-old phenom led the NHL with 113 points (35g, 78a) and is a finalist for this year's Hart Trophy as league MVP.
Perhaps the finest example of Malkin's dominance came in Game 2 of the East finals against Carolina, when the superstar poured in four points en route to his first career playoff hat trick.
The most impressive thing about Malkin's hat trick was the fact that two of his goals came after Carolina had tied the score at 4-4 early in the third period. Not to mention, the third goal scored by Malkin was one of the best displays of individual talent in this postseason.
Malkin's highlight-reel goal gave the Pens a 6-4 edge at 12:25 of the third period, and seemed to catch Carolina goaltender Cam Ward off guard. Malkin skated the puck out from behind the Hurricanes net, headed into the left circle and with his back facing the goal, flung a backhand shot that sailed over Ward's left shoulder and into the net.
With his memorable Game 2 performance, Malkin has silenced the critics once again. That is, until he goes pointless over a two-game stretch and the process of questioning Malkin's heart and desire is once again played out in the hockey media.
The fact is that Pittsburgh lives and dies by its dynamic duo of Crosby and Malkin. The players seem to take turns dominating because the opposition usually only has the personnel to shut down one of them at a time, if they are lucky enough to accomplish even that much. If a coach identifies Malkin as the player to stop, then Crosby will likely have a huge series, and vice versa.
Chances are Carolina will focus more on Malkin in Game 3, and that could mean the hockey world will once again be talking about Crosby and not his Russian counterpart.
Either way, the Penguins will be happy.