Malkin coming out of his shell in third season


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While his teammates sat at their stalls and stared blankly following a players-only meeting in the wake of Tuesday's stinging 5-2 loss to Boston, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin slipped out of the locker room.

Normally a crooked, chipped-tooth grin waiting to happen, Malkin had his head down and ran a hand over his dark hair as he ducked into the shower area to avoid the advancing media throng and the cameras that unnerve him.

It had been a rare off night for the NHL's leading scorer, no points despite four shots on goal, on the ice for two Bruins goals and a couple trips to the penalty box.

Still, in a Penguins season that has been somewhat disappointing as it nears the halfway point following a run to the Stanley Cup final in June, Malkin is finding life to be good.

It's not that he doesn't care about the team's results -- anyone who watches him can see he hates losing as much as his teammates do -- but he enjoys the comfort that comes with settling into new surroundings, including a new house and a hockey career that has him on top of the world and almost assuredly headed to his second consecutive All-Star Game.

"Every year is little better," Malkin, 22, said in a thick Russian accent during a one-on-one interview this week.

In his third NHL season, Malkin is still the tall, shy, good-natured hockey player who arrived in Pittsburgh in August 2006 for his rookie season after an emotional, arduous journey from Magnitogorsk, Russia. He had broken his Russian Super League contract, which he said he signed under duress, and snuck away from his Metallurg team during a trip to Helsinki, Finland.

As his highly promoted and quoted teammate, center Sidney Crosby, has become the face of the NHL, Malkin -- known nearly universally now by his nickname "Geno" -- quietly has taken some big steps toward independence when he is away from the safety net of the team by learning English better and becoming self-sufficient socially.

That meant moving out of the home of teammate and fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar into his own house in the area about two weeks ago.

"Big house," Malkin said, adding that he still wants to surround himself with familiar faces, so his Russian girlfriend, Oksana, will be staying with him, and his parents will make extended visits, including one that will start later this month.

He's enjoying the life of a homeowner, or at least most of it.

"I feel OK. I cook," he said. He grills steak and chicken, makes spaghetti and salad. He grocery shops and likes the organic selections at Whole Foods.

Who cleans up?

"My girlfriend. Not me," Malkin said. "My mom when she comes."

On the days of home games, he prefers a midday home-prepared steak and salad to going out, and he sticks to the same pregame snack at the rink -- he is a jam fiend, slapping it on buttered toast.

"Strawberry, raspberry," he said. "I like it. It's sweet."

Without Gonchar, who had shoulder surgery in October and will be out for at least several more weeks, Malkin has had to get by without his go-to Russian ally. He doesn't lean too heavily on Petr Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko -- his linemates recently -- who speak Russian.

"It's OK. It's my third year. I'm comfortable," said Malkin, who before this season always asked for an interpreter for interviews. He still tends to freeze when the cameras are on, though, and often makes himself scarce when reporters are around.

On charter flights with the team, Malkin has taken to playing cards with English-speaking teammates Matt Cooke, Brooks Orpik and his road roommate, Mark Eaton. They used to play hearts but now have gotten hooked on another trick-based game, snarples.

"I like it," Malkin said. "It helps me talk [with teammates]. It's fun."

Who wins?

"Me. Every time. I'm smart," Malkin said, flashing that grin.

Cooke wouldn't quite back that up.

"He wasn't that good at the beginning of the season, but he's learning," he said. "He's good at counting cards."

On the ice, Malkin is filling out the potential the Penguins saw when they selected him second overall in the 2004 NHL draft.

Malkin, 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds, has 15 goals, 44 assists for 59 points in 37 games going into tonight's rematch with the Bruins in Boston. With slick moves and strong play in both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice, he can dominate games.

When fan voting for the Jan. 25 All-Star Game ends tomorrow, Malkin is nearly a lock to be a starter for the Eastern Conference. Crosby and Malkin have been 1-2 in balloting for weeks, each with more than a million votes.

"Million?" Malkin said, his eyes widening. "Thank you. I think Pittsburgh fans love hockey so much. They're good fans."

The debate has raged for months, and could continue for years, over whether Malkin, Crosby, 21, or Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, 23, is the best hockey player in the world. Crosby won the scoring title two seasons ago. Ovechkin won it last season, with Malkin the runner-up.

"My favorite is Sid," Malkin said. "Good skater. Good puck control. Good passes. Everything."

Crosby is second in the league to Malkin this season with 50 points.

"More points is maybe because of me better luck," Malkin said. "Sid play better."

Crosby can have all the marketing and media attention, too.

"Sid is good at talking English and talking with media," Malkin said. "I just play hockey."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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