Evgeni Malkin tried. Oh, how he tried.
At least as much as -- and maybe more than -- he had while giving the Penguins nearly 23 minutes of quality work in their 2-0 victory at the Bell Centre in Montreal Saturday.
Still, he never quite made enough sense of the words to understand the question being put to him. Which was, essentially, whether he felt compelled to assume Sidney Crosby's role as the Penguins' go-to forward while Crosby recovers from a high ankle sprain.
The best response Malkin could muster, at least in the locker room, was a shrug and a crooked smile. That didn't really matter, though, because his performance in the previous 21/2 hours had provided an answer that required no interpretation.
Mostly because he expressed himself in the universal language of excellence.
- Matchup: Washington Capitals at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
- TV, radio: Versus; WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Dany Sabourin for Penguins. Brent Johnson for Capitals.
- Penguins: Are 15-2 in past 17 home games against Washington, including 4-3 overtime victory Dec. 27. ... C Evgeni Malkin has nine of his team-high 24 goals in past 10 games. ... Own 7-0-1 record when D Kris Letang gets point.
- Capitals: Have gone 9-10-4 on road. ... LW Alex Ovechkin has scored 21 of his 134 career goals in the final two minutes of a period. ... Have been outshot 13 times in 47 games.
- Hidden stat: Capitals have rallied from two-goal deficits to win three times in past 13 games.
Malkin scored an empty-net goal with 12.4 seconds left in regulation for his only point of the evening, but could have picked up several others if teammates had been able to capitalize on the opportunities he created.
Like when he breezed around Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov -- that's the same Andrei Markov voted an Eastern Conference starter in the All-Star Game -- early in the second period and slid a backhand pass to Sergei Gonchar, who was robbed by Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet.
Or when, a few minutes later, he sprung Petr Sykora on a breakaway Sykora failed to convert.
Fact is, Malkin was highly visible on nearly all of the 29 shifts he took Saturday evening. If he was auditioning to be Crosby's stand-in, well, consider the position filled.
"He's probably always wanted to be the No. 1 center, and he's got his chance now," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "He obviously has the talent to do it. It's going to be no surprise if he steps up and keeps playing the way he has."
Casting Malkin in such a role hardly is a reach. Going into last night's games, he was the No. 14 scorer in the NHL, with 24 goals and 29 assists. What's more, he spent several winters as the most prominent player on his hometown team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in the Russian Super League.
"He wants to be the go-to guy," left winger Jarkko Ruutu said. "It's not the first time in his career."
Exceptional as Malkin's pedigree is -- he was the second player chosen in the 2004 entry draft -- it's not practical to expect him to approach Crosby's level of productivity.
For starters, the Penguins figure to be at least a bit more conservative in their style of play while Crosby is out. Also, Crosby had the benefit of having Malkin on his wing at various times this season; Malkin's linemates Saturday -- Sykora and Ryan Malone -- are pretty fair hockey players, but neither is going to be mistaken for Crosby's offensive stunt double.
Regardless of who is flanking him, Malkin's effectiveness will be inexorably linked to how he uses the players around him.
After Crosby was injured in the first period of a 3-0 loss to Tampa Bay Friday, Malkin seemed intent on trying to manufacture a victory almost by himself. He made several futile attempts to split the Lightning defense while carrying the puck, and almost tried to will his way into other scoring situations, with little success.
"He has to play with his line[mates]," center Maxime Talbot said. "That's definitely a big point."
It's a lesson Malkin seemed to absorb between the game against Tampa Bay and the one in Montreal, where he distributed the puck efficiently without detracting from the offensive threat he presents while keeping it.
"If you try to do too much, you do more harm than good," Gonchar said. "If you try to create things on your own, it's really tough nowadays in the league, when you have such good defensive systems everywhere."
Malkin has been in North America for more than a season and a half now and has adapted to the way the game is played here. That's one of many adjustments he has made to position himself to step into the void created by Crosby's injury.
"You saw all the skill he shows now when he got here," Whitney said. "But with the language and the new surroundings and all that stuff, he probably was a little nervous, a little timid at the time."
English still can be a bit baffling, but Malkin has gone a long way toward mastering the rest. Which is why he doesn't seem shy about stepping into the spotlight Crosby has dominated for so long.
"I think he really wants to be the guy," Talbot said. "And we're going to see if he can be."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published January 21, 2008 5:00 AM