Malkin's star glimmering brightly

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No offense to the great Sidney Crosby, but Evgeni Malkin is playing like the best hockey player in the world.

Can we at least agree Malkin is 1A if Crosby is No. 1?

There's not much doubt about the difference between this bunch of Penguins, who took a 2-0 playoff series lead against the Ottawa Senators last night with a 5-3 win, and the flightless birds who went out quietly in five games against the Senators last spring.

It is the great Malkin.

Did I mention he's playing fabulous hockey?

"He's flying," Crosby said. "This is a great time of the year to be doing that."

The Penguins have scored nine goals in the two home games against the Senators and Malkin has figured in six.

Can you say early -- OK, very early -- Conn Smythe Trophy favorite?

A year ago, Malkin did squat against the Senators after winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year.

Can you say maturity?

It's no wonder Malkin wilted down the stretch last season. European players and college kids almost always do in their first NHL season. They're not used to the brutal schedule and worse travel. In Malkin's case, it was his first time away from Mother Russia. A different language. Different customs. Different food. Malkin didn't just struggle against the Senators, getting a mere four assists and no goals. He had no goals in the final four regular-season games, two goals in the final 14 games and four goals in the final 24 games.

Say this for Malkin, though:

The kid is a fast learner.

Clearly, Malkin was in better shape when he reported to training camp last fall, probably because he didn't have to spend a sizable chunk of his offseason sneaking out of Russia and into this country. You might remember that covert deal before his rookie year; it was something out of a "Mission: Impossible" episode. He started this season fast and never slowed down, finishing as the No. 2 scorer in the league behind Washington's Alexander Ovechkin with 106 points on 47 goals and 59 assists.

The Senators must not recognize Malkin this time. He's bigger, stronger and faster. In the first two games, he has been the most dominant player on the ice.

The Senators simply can't knock him off the puck.

"Who knows how he does it?" Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Look at him. He doesn't look that big. He looks skinny, doesn't he? But he has such great balance and he's really strong on his feet. And his vision, all the great players have that. They see plays before they happen."

Malkin saw three sweet ones last night.

He had three of the prettiest passes you'll ever see as the Penguins jumped to a 3-0 lead. The first set up Sergei Gonchar for a wicked one-timer on a five-on-three power play. The second led to a Petr Sykora tap-in on a bing-bang-boom play started by Crosby on another power play. And the third, well, that was pretty extraordinary. Malkin, sailing down the left wing, froze Ottawa goaltender Martin Gerber by faking a slap shot, then fired a cross-ice pass to Sykora, who chalked up another easy one.

"What a great combination they are," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said of Malkin and Sykora. "[Sykora] has an awesome shot and [Malkin] is going to beat one, maybe even two guys, to get him the puck and let him make a play."

It also happened that way in the Penguins' 4-0 win in Game 1. Sykora got the second goal on a two-on-one with Malkin after Malkin had made a great play by beating Senators defenseman Mike Commodore coming out of the Penguins' zone. Malkin later scored the third goal and assisted on the fourth by Gary Roberts.

"He's really elevated his game," Crosby said.

Penguins coach Michel Therrien and Orpik aren't so sure.

"He's played very, very well all season," Therrien said.

"It started when Sid went out [with his high ankle sprain in mid-January," Orpik said. "He just kind of took over for us. His play went right through the roof."

Malkin had 20 goals and 26 assists in 28 games without Crosby in the lineup.

Now, with Crosby, he is averaging three points a game against the Senators.

"You can see his focus and his hunger," Therrien said. "He's hungry and Sid is hungry."

I'm thinking famished, actually.

In addition to his three assists, Malkin took eight shots last night. Crosby had seven and finished with four assists, including a pair on Ryan Malone's two late goals that were the difference.

"When your two offensive leaders are hungry to play well like that," Therrien said, "that's a good thing for your team."

Good enough for a 2-0 series lead.

Good enough to make you think even better things are ahead.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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