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Once a second choice, Penguins' Evgeni Malkin nears scoring title

The Canadian Press
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In this Feb. 4, 2009 file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins\' Evgeni Malkin (71) of Russia celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against the Tampa Bay Lightning in NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar, File Author: The Hockey News

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Once a second choice, Penguins' Evgeni Malkin nears scoring title

The Canadian Press
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PITTSBURGH - There was palpable disappointment in the Pittsburgh Penguins' front office five years ago when they lost the draft lottery and missed out on Alex Ovechkin, one of the NHL's most promising prospects in a quarter-century.

The Penguins were coming off a third consecutive terrible season, their attendance was the league's worst and a prospect-thin farm system offered little hope for the immediate future. Privately, the Penguins spent months counting upon landing Ovechkin, only to lose him to the Capitals because of the fickle tumble of a ping pong ball.

Amid the post-lottery doom and gloom, one Penguins official said, perhaps more optimistically than realistically, "At least we get Evgeni Malkin."

Turns out Malkin might be one of the best consolation prizes of all time.

As the NHL regular season concludes this weekend, the 22-year-old Malkin has a strong chance to become only the second Russian player to win the Art Ross Trophy that goes to the NHL scoring champion - yet the second to do so in as many seasons, succeeding Ovechkin.

With one game remaining for each, Malkin has a 112-108 points edge over Ovechkin, who has played in three fewer games because he missed two to visit his ailing grandfather in Russia and another with a heel injury. Those absences may prevent Ovechkin from becoming the first repeat champion since former Penguins star Jaromir Jagr won four in a row ending in 2000-01.

Even if Ovechkin enjoys a big game Saturday night against Florida, Malkin is confident he can generate enough points in Montreal to win the title.

"I'll score, too, so I win," Malkin said with a smile.

Not that it's any surprise that Pittsburgh might win yet another scoring title - even if it's Malkin and not captain Sidney Crosby, the 2006-07 scoring leader.

If Malkin closes it out, the Penguins would become the first team to have two NHL scoring champions playing for them simultaneously before either has reached his 23rd birthday, as Crosby is only 21. Crosby, drafted the year after Malkin, is currently third with 103 points in 76 games despite missing five games to injuries.

Pittsburgh has been in the NHL since 1967, decades after the Original Six began, yet Malkin would be a record 13th Art Ross winner for the Penguins and their fourth in 12 years, joining Mario Lemieux, Jagr and Crosby.

Malkin also can win the 11th scoring title for a Penguins player since the 1991-92 season; no other team has won more than one during that period.

Interim coach Dan Bylsma has been in Pittsburgh less than two months, yet it's obvious to him how much Malkin's teammates want him to win.

"It didn't start the last few games," Bylsma said. "We want our players to have success. We want Evgeni to have success. You keep that in mind when guys are getting close to their third goal (in a game) and are looking for a hat trick. Those are things you keep in mind - how we want to play. We find success for everyone."

Malkin was greeted by chants of "MVP, MVP" by a sellout crowd as he picked up two assists during a 6-1 victory over the Islanders on Thursday night, at the same time Ovechkin was going scoreless against Tampa Bay.

"It's a good season," Malkin said. "We're ready for the playoffs and myself, I'm good."

Malkin and the 23-year-old Ovechkin are from the same country, but they're hardly the same type of player and they certainly don't share similar personalities.

Ovechkin is a goal-scorer first and everything else is a distant second; he has 55 goals to Malkin's 34. He also is flashier and more colourful, as evidenced by his my-stick-is-too-hot-to-hold routine when he recently scored his 50th goal - a showboating display criticized around the league.

Malkin isn't as flashy, and is more in the Crosby mould of being a playmaker first and a goal-scorer second. Malkin has 78 assists, 25 more than Ovechkin. Malkin and Crosby are the only two NHL players with as many as 70 assists.

Still, Malkin might not be able to wrest the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP from Ovechkin, given how much the NHL's most dynamic scorer means to the Capitals. Unlike Malkin, Ovechkin doesn't have a counterpart similar to Crosby, who may receive some MVP votes of his own.

Regardless, Crosby believes Malkin deserves the scoring title and the MVP, given how Malkin has carried a Penguins team that was barely over .500 in mid-February to its third consecutive post-season appearance. Malkin, chosen over Crosby as Pittsburgh's MVP, has nine goals and 21 assists as the Penguins have gone 17-3-3 in their last 23 games.

"They've both had great years, but I'd love to see Geno win it," Crosby said.

Malkin's teammates probably won't do anything special to try to help him win the title, Crosby said, because it's simply not that easy to choreograph scoring plays. And the Penguins must win to preserve any chance of finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference and earning home-ice advantage for at least one round of the playoffs.

"It'll be a little extra look or an extra touch here and there but, for the most part, I think you want to keep things pretty regular," Crosby said. "I think what's made him successful all year isn't going to change. He's just got to keep playing the same way."

Some consolation prize, indeed.

"I play good, I feel good and I'm not injured," Malkin said. "It's a good season."

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Once a second choice, Penguins' Evgeni Malkin nears scoring title