MONTREAL - The top two picks in the 2004 draft are battling for the Art Ross Trophy, but No. 2 pick Evgeni Malkin says he's more concerned with the playoff race than staying ahead of No. 1 Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
Malkin has been on fire since Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby suffered a high ankle sprain on Jan. 18. The two Russians, as well as Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a few others, are in a tight race for the scoring lead three-quarters of the way through the season.
"I'm not concentrating on that race," Malkin said, with defenceman Sergei Gonchar acting as interpreter. "The most important thing is that the team is playing well.
"We have a good streak going and that's the only thing I'm worried about. The race between me and Ovechkin is not on my mind."
In the 14 games after Crosby was injured, Malkin had 27 points, including 11 goals. He is quickly closing in on the 85 points that won him the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie last season.
Crosby has been skating since last week, but is expected to be out for at least another two weeks. He took practice off on Wednesday and did not accompany the team to Montreal for a game on Thursday night.
"He's progressing really well," coach Michel Therrien said of Crosby, last season's scoring champion and league MVP. "We don't know when he's coming back yet, but he's getting closer and closer.
"He's skating and even started battling, so it's a good sign."
He said taking days off was part of Crosby's rehabilitation program because "he can't be on the ice battling every day. He has to have time off."
Should Malkin win the scoring race, it would be the 13th time since 1988 that a Penguin has won the Art Ross, with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Crosby the other winners over that span.
Before Crosby's injury, Malkin was his linemate on left-wing, but since then, he has switched back to is natural position at centre.
"In my life, I never played on the wing," Malkin said. "In the NHL was the first time I ever played there, with Sidney.
"Now I'm obviously more comfortable going back to centre. I'm feeling better there."
Gonchar said his 21-year-old teammate keeps getting better as he adapts to North America and the NHL.
" With him, it's more of a comfort level," said the 33-year-old defenceman. "He got used to the North American style of game.
"It's more a question of him being comfortable than Sidney being out. He can speak English better. He knows the guys better. He knows the system. All those things combined."
The Penguins knew Malkin would have to step up when Crosby went down. The whole team has followed and the Penguins are hotter now than they were with their captain in the lineup.
"I'm not trying to prove to anybody - not my coach, my teammates or anyone," said Malkin. "I'm just getting more ice time and opportunity and that's probably why I'm playing so well."
And Therrien laughs at any suggestion the Penguins may be better off without Crosby.
"We can't wait to have Sidney back," said Therrien. "Even if the team is playing well.
"Even if Evgeni Malkin is playing the best hockey of his career right now. The way he's been playing for a month, he's probably the best player in the league. But Sidney's our leader, our captain and we're convinced that when he's back, we're going to be a better team."
The Penguins also expect goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury back from a sprained ankle this week from a rehab stint with AHL Wilkes-Barre, although Ty Conklin and Dany Sabourin have excelled in goal in his absence. Fleury was 3-1-0 in a four AHL starts.