CALGARY - Evgeni Malkin looks ready, mentally and physically, to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins in Sidney Crosby's absence.
Lost in the concern over Crosby's recovery from concussion-like symptoms is the fact Malkin has also had a long road back from injury.
The big Russian tore ligaments in his right knee Feb. 4 when he was checked by Buffalo's Tyler Myers, which ended Malkin's season prematurely.
Malkin is back and with a little bit extra to start the NHL season, according to his teammates and coach.
"I think he's just hungry," Crosby said. "He didn't play the second half (of the season) and he's a competitive guy.
"He had a great pre-season. When he's playing like that, he's pretty hard to stop and that's a good sign for us."
After three goals and four assists in four pre-season games, Malkin had an assist and a shootout goal in Pittsburgh's season-opening 4-3 win in Vancouver. With his speed, skills and six-foot-three, 195-pound body, Malkin is a difficult player to contain.
"He has been extremely dominant right from the moment he got into camp," said Steve Sullivan, Malkin's linemate. "He's got a fire in his belly to be the best he can be right now and help this hockey club win."
Malkin's injury and subsequent knee surgery were considered to be season-ending. That didn't stop him from trying to return to the lineup in time for playoffs last season, although he wasn't able to do so.
The Penguins lost Crosby to concussions in January. Although he's currently skating with the team, Crosby has yet to be cleared for contact.
Without Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay and lost in seven games.
Malkin, the NHL's top scorer and playoff MVP in 2009, worked extremely hard in the off-season not just rehabilitating his knee but to be in top physical shape. Pittsburgh's strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar spent three weeks in Russia with Malkin overseeing his training.
"It was very hard because for the first time I hadn't played in a long time," Malkin said. "It was my first big injury."
Malkin won the NHL's Art Ross Trophy with 113 points, as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
He had 77 points in 67 games in 2009-10 and was averaging less than a point per game last season prior to his injury. The 25-year-old from Magnitogorsk has spoken of getting his production back to the 2009 levels, which a motivated and healthy Malkin is capable of doing.
"He's been a horse in pre-season," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's certainly come to camp and worked hard and is in better shape.
"He's carried a lot of confidence with him, a different demeanour and that's carried onto the ice with his play as well. He's ready to have a great year to help us be a very good team. He's a guy who is taking charge of the situation."
Without Crosby in the lineup, Malkin will get more pressure from opposing defences and will still be counted on to produce.
"I don't think about Sid being out," Malkin said. "Maybe I'm playing a little bit more time, but I just play my game and not rush.
"We hope Sid is coming back soon, but of course everyone tries to play harder every game."