OTTAWA -- Penguins center Evgeni Malkin certainly isn't in defenseman Sergei Gonchar's shadow these days.
Malkin was mentored by the fellow Russian his first several years in the NHL, lived with the Gonchar family, and the two became good friends. But Malkin, 26, is a superstar in his own right after winning the league scoring title and MVP awards last season.
Then, there was a reunion. As they had during the 2004-05 lockout, Malkin and Gonchar played together for Malkin's hometown Metallurg Mignitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout that wiped out the first three-plus months of this NHL season. That meant a return to the strong chemistry between Malkin and Gonchar. The passing, the puck movement on the power play -- it all came back.
"He's unbelievable," Malkin said of Gonchar. "He's a playmaker and [sets up] great assists. We just worked every day in practice and enjoy playing together."
When he left Russia for the belated start of the NHL season, Malkin was among the KHL leaders with 23 goals, 65 points in 37 games.
Now it's back to reality. Gonchar will be back on the opponent side today when the Penguins play an early evening game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place. Gonchar is in his third season with the Senators after spending five with the Penguins.
"I'm not just focused on Gonchar; I want to win the game," Malkin said. "We're friends outside the rink, but on the ice we're not friends. If I have a chance, I'll try to beat him and score two goals."
Back to roots
While getting ready for a workout the Penguins squeezed in among games that were part of a youth tournament Saturday at the Senators' practice rink, defenseman Kris Letang got a reminder of where he was.
"I was coming out of the [locker] room to get some sticks, and I saw the arena packed," he said. "It's typical for Canada, though, when you have a guy like [Sidney] Crosby or Malkin come to the [local] rink. Young kids will spend a few hours watching them."
It likely won't be the same today.
"No, I expect some boos," Letang said.
But a large reception was fun while it lasted in a road city.
"Obviously, it's a hockey city," winger Matt Cooke said. "Most Canadian ones are. Being a Saturday afternoon right smack in the middle of a hockey tournament probably is a good thing to have a lot of people around."
The Penguins have been assessed an average of 15 penalty minutes per game through the first week of the season, placing them 15th in the NHL before Saturday.
There has been, in general, less tolerance than usual for anything even resembling an infraction, with acts that seem innocuous or a normal part of the game earning players a trip to the penalty box.
Not that the Penguins seem particularly surprised by that.
"I just think they're unclear as to what areas need to be cracked down on," Cooke said. "It's a learning curve. We had it last time coming out of a lockout, and we're going to have it this time.
"It's going to take the first 10 minutes [of each game] to get an understanding of what the two refs are planning or are willing to accept and go from there."
Defenseman Deryk Engelland said he has to be particularly aware of when he makes contact with opponents who are entering the Penguins' zone.
"When they chip the puck in, you have to be quick to bump into them or it's going to be [called] interference," he said. "That's probably the biggest change for my game. You can't wait two or three seconds and then hit a guy. You have to do it right away or not do it at all."
The Penguins were assessed three boarding minors against Toronto and felt that the rulings on at least a couple of them were unduly strict.
"The terminology for that changed last year, and it's no longer 'unsuspecting,' " Cooke said.
"It's 'vulnerable' or 'not vulnerable,' and, if a guy knows you're coming, he's no longer vulnerable, because he knows. It's a tough situation."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly Dave Molinari: email@example.com.