Evgeni Malkin: A Lesson in Resurgence

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin should send Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers a fruit basket right now. That may be an odd statement considering that Myers is the player who fell into Malkin’s right leg, tearing his ACL and MCL. At the time, it was a devastating blow to an already injury-riddled Penguins club and no one knew how long it would take for Malkin to recover and return to action. Unfortunately, Malkin didn’t make it back in the 2010-2011 season and the Penguins, without both Malkin and their captain Sidney Crosby, lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.

But that injury changed Malkin. It sparked a fire of ambition in his heart and he set out to not only rehabilitate his knee, but also to become the best hockey player he had ever been.

Malkin had surgery to repair the torn ligaments in his knee on Thursday, Feb. 10. Although recovery time varies from person to person for that injury, it was expected that it would take Malkin six months or more to fully recover. But in June 2011, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma revealed to reporters that Malkin may have been healthy enough to have played in the series against the Lightning in late April. That meant that Malkin had recovered from his injury in a third of the time it would take a normal human being. This insight from Bylsma made it clear that Malkin was serious about hockey.

During the summer of 2011, Malkin continued to rehabilitate his knee in his native Russia. During his time there, he brought Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar to oversee his recovery and help him regain strength in his knee, as well as in the rest of his body. This process was taped by Kadar and then posted in video snippets on the Pittsburgh Penguins website and titled “From Russia with Love.” In these videos, you can see that Malkin wasn’t just working out his knee, he was working everything. From weight training and power skating to swimming and stick handling, Geno had turned into a training freak.

During his time with Malkin, Kadar told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “I think this is my fifth year knowing Geno, and I have never seen him this committed to wanting to get better and get well.” Malkin’s close friend and former countryman Sergei Gonchar also gave similar statements about Malkin’s motivation and drive to get better. The word was out: Geno had never trained this hard.

Now, after nearly a year has passed since Malkin’s injury, it is quite apparent that his ambition to transform himself has paid off. Malkin is the NHL’s scoring leader with 58 points, despite missing seven games due to injury. He’s had goals in eight of his last nine contests and is averaging a league-leading 1.41 points per game. The Penguins have now won a season-high six straight games and Malkin has scored at least one goal in each of those games, which ties for the longest goal-scoring streak of his career, which he established Oct. 18-Nov. 1, 2006 – the first six games of his NHL career (which set a modern day record for being the first player to score at least one goal in each of his first six games). Malkin is currently tied for third in the NHL in goal scoring with 26, is tied for fifth in power-play points (18) and is tied for sixth in assists (32). At this point, it isn’t unrealistic to think that he could be a legitimate contender for both the Rocket Richard trophy (most goals scored in the NHL season) and the Art Ross trophy (most points scored in the NHL season).

During his best statistical season (2008-2009) Malkin finished with a league-high 113 points to win the scoring title, finishing with 35 goals and 78 assists. That season, he also amassed 20 power-play goals, five game-winning goals and 211 shots. This season, he is on pace for 105 points with 47 goals (12 more than in 08-09) and 58 assists. He is also on pace for nine power-play goals, 13 game-winning goals (eight more than in 08-09) and a whopping 358 shots (147 more than 08-09). And remember, in 2008-2009, he played the entire 82-game season. If he stays healthy enough to play in the rest of the games this year, he will have played in 75 games, seven less than his best season.

How and when Malkin is scoring goals right now is also a key factor to examine. So far, Malkin has scored seven game winning goals, second to only Johan Franzen of the Detroit Redwings. That is already two more than in Malkin’s best season. On Nov. 15, Malkin scored one of his most memorable goals of the season against the Colorado Avalanche. He received a pass from James Neal in the corner of the offensive zone, deked and put the puck through the legs of a defender and dove across the goal mouth to deposit the puck behind goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

On Jan. 13, Malkin scored a natural hat-trick in the third period against the third place Florida Panthers to help win the game for the Penguins and end a six-game losing streak. Then four days later in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Malkin showed why he might be the best goal scorer in the NHL, skating in toward Cam Ward and then lifting the puck practically straight up to find the only space Ward was allowing on that side. It was nearly an impossible goal.

Then there was Geno’s backhand goal over Henrik Lundqvist on Jan. 19. The goal helped lift the Penguins to a win over the first place Rangers, ending a streak of three straight losses to the Blueshirts. He simply beat one of the game’s best goalies with one of the game’s most wicked backhands.

Or how about Malkin’s performance against Montreal on Friday, Jan. 20? He tied the game late in the third with one of the hardest one-timers you will ever see and then won the game in the shootout.  And you can’t discount his latest game against the Washington Capitals, in which he notched the game winner in over time. His scoring feats go on and on this year. But it’s not just scoring in regulation and overtime that has made Malkin one of the elite scorers of the league. He is also much more comfortable in the shootout. It was common knowledge that in the past, Malkin didn’t like participating in the shootout. He was uninventive and he wasn’t productive. In 08-09, Geno was 2-7 in the shootout with a 28.6 goal percentage. And he only scored one game-deciding shootout goal that season. This year, Malkin is relishing the shootout. He is 4-6 with a 66.7 goal percentage and he already has two game-deciding shootout goals. At his current pace, expect Geno to notch seven shootout goals if the Pens shootout appearances continue to rack up at their current pace.

Defensively, Malkin is also excelling on the ice. He is currently a plus-12 and he continues to back check hard during every shift, making his speed and stick-work just as effective on defense as they are on offense. And one key aspect that I’ve noticed about Malkin is his willingness to block shots. Although most Penguins fans would rather he not put himself in the line of fire, his commitment to risk his body defensively makes a huge statement about him. His teammates and coaches know that when a superstar offensive player like Geno gets down in front of a slapper from the blue line, he is committed to help the team win in every way he can.

Finally, we should also examine Geno in the faceoff circle. This was another area that he never seemed comfortable in. In his career, Malkin averages a 41.3 win percentage in the faceoff circle. This year, he is winning 44.8 percent of his draws. So far, this is the best season of his career in taking draws, his previous best being his rookie season when he averaged 43.3 percent in the circle.

So why is this year so different? Why is Geno having one of the best seasons of his career? Because everyone was doubting Malkin, even Malkin himself. After his 2008-2009 season (in which he won the regular season scoring titles, was the leading scorer of the playoffs and was awarded the post-season MVP) Malkin’s numbers began to decline. In the 2009-2010 season, he scored 77 points (down from 113 the previous year), 28 goals (down from 35 the previous year) and was a minus-6 (compared to a plus-17 the previous year). Although he played in 15 games fewer in 2009-2010, it was apparent that there was something missing from his game. His skid continued in the 2010-2011 campaign, when he registered only 37 points (15 goals and 22 assists) in 43 games. Again, Malkin was a minus player when he went down with his knee injury.

The hockey pundits noticed the declines and were quick to write Geno off, and how could they not? The numbers were in black in white. The former Russian superstar just wasn’t playing like he had before. Tyler Myers gave Geno the opportunity to alter the course he was on and silence the doubters. Now he’s changing the way everyone has thought of him the past few seasons. He is in top form with no signs of slowing down. Once again, Evgeni Malkin is a superstar and the city of Pittsburgh couldn’t be happier.

The Bill O’Brien Hire: Keeping Things In Perspective

Last night I was half asleep in bed, when breaking news about Penn State’s head football coach search flashed across my television screen. I was instantly awake and I honestly got goose bumps. But only partly because I was excited to hear who it was. Mostly, it was because I believed it was the first step back to normalcy for the university. Now before you tell me that a new coach in Happy Valley is not at all normal – considering this hasn’t happened in about half a century – remember what has been normal lately in the Penn State community: one of, if not the biggest scandal to ever occur in major collegiate sports. As Penn State fans, our normal became people cracking jokes when we wore PSU clothing. Normal was seeing the bottom line on ESPN scroll news about a new victim speaking up about alleged abuse from Sandusky, nearly every day. Normal was also our fairly average starting quarterback knocking himself unconscious during a fight and suffering a seizure a few weeks before the Ticket City Bowl. Then normal became our terrible back-up quarterback help the rest of the team sink into bowl mediocrity at a half-empty stadium in Texas on January 2. Suddenly the latest “normal” for Penn State doesn’t seem so bad to me. Now we have the prospect of having a winning future. And because it’s awhile until the next Penn State regular season football game, we won’t know if O’Brien will be successful for some time. But we can at least have hope. That’s pretty good considering how hopeless it has seemed for Penn State in the recent past.

I’m also aware that some folks refuse to have hope for Bill O’Brien. His hiring is getting blasted by the media and Penn State alumni alike ever since the news dropped. Many former Nittany Lion football players, such as LaVar Arrington, Matt Millen and Todd Blackledge have all questioned the decision. And it is all because O’Brien is not a “Penn State guy.” It’s as if this “outsider” can’t do the job because he’s not “one of us.” Give me a break, that sounds like some sort of cult. I couldn’t care less if Bill O’Brien isn’t a Penn State guy. Is that really such a big deal? There have been plenty of other college football coaches who have found success at schools that they had no previous ties to. Pete Carrol wasn’t a USC guy, Chip Kelly wasn’t an Oregon guy, Les Miles wasn’t an LSU guy and Nick Saban wasn’t an Alabama guy. I’m not saying O’Brien will live up to any of these standards, but it just shows that success in college football can come from the outside.

Former Lion quarterback Kerry Collins came out and stood up for O’Brien today. He called all alumni football players to support the new guy, even if they didn’t want him in the first place. Collins urged former players to spend less time criticizing O’Brien for not being a Penn State guy and spend more time showing him what makes Penn Staters great and treat him with respect and show him support. Collins called for a united front to stand by our leader whoever it is, because Penn State needs leadership now more than ever. At this point, I think we should all follow Collins’ lead. The football team doesn’t need a Penn State guy, it needs a winner. And last time I checked, O’Brien has a much better chance of winning football games at Penn State now than he does going back in time and having some kind of affiliation with Penn State.

The naysayers will drive home the point that he has no head coaching experience. And that’s a valid point. A head coaching job isn’t as much about the Xs and Os as it is managing people, kids in fact. There’s a big difference between working with the best and richest athletes in America and trying to improve a 19-year-old that is rough around the edges in both football and academics. True, there are many different facets to the college job compared to the pro job. But remember, it all comes down the same thing: football. O’Brien is a highly talented football mind. He has potential and it’s not like he was a former bowling coach. He was a football guy. He’s had experience with the New England Patriots, Duke, Maryland, Brown and Georgia Tech. He’s been a running backs coach, a tight ends coach, an inside linebackers coach, a quarterbacks coach, a wide receivers coach and an offensive coordinator. The total record of the teams O’Brien was coaching for is 151-92. He was a part of 10 winning seasons and only two losing ones. All of that has to count for something right? I know it might not mean much considering coordinators and position coaches don’t get credited with wins, but I’d rather be optimistic, given the fact that a big name didn’t accept the job and Bill O’Brien did. We don’t have a choice right now, so why not try and think positively?

I’m not going to promise that O’Brien will carry on the winning tradition at Penn State. Right now, there’s no way to tell. Let’s just wait and see before we decide whether Bill O’Brien can be a Penn State guy or not because right now, he is Penn State’s guy, whether we like it or not.

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