Evgeni Malkin is an NHL scoring champion and playoff MVP.
And for an hour or so during the practice at Consol Energy Center Monday afternoon, he was one of the most gifted fourth-line centers in hockey history.
But Malkin won't be filling that role -- or any other -- when the Penguins face the New York Rangers at 7:38 p.m. today at Madison Square Garden, because coach Dan Bylsma has ruled him out of the game.
The reason, Bylsma said, is the lingering effects of a sinus infection Malkin has been battling of late.
"He's not ready to go," Bylsma said.
- Matchup: Penguins at New York Rangers, 7:38 p.m. today, Madison Square Garden.
- TV/Radio: Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Penguins: Went 5-1 in final six games before all-star break. ... Have not allowed power-play goal in past six games, going 22 for 22 on penalty-kill. ... Are outscoring opponents, 55-36, in second period.
- Rangers: Are 12-11-2 at home, including 3-1 loss to Penguins Nov. 29. ... C Chris Drury does not have goal in 21 games this season. ... Have better record when being outshot (15-7-1) than outshooting opponents (14-11-2).
- Hidden stat: Rangers have gotten winning goals from league-high 17 players this season.
It was that sinus problem, not a recurring issue with his left knee, that apparently prevented him from playing in the final three games before the NHL all-star break.
Malkin was to accompany his teammates to New York Monday night, and is scheduled to skate there today. Whether he'll be in the lineup when the New York Islanders visit Consol Energy Center Wednesday night isn't known, and probably hasn't been determined yet.
That Malkin is being held out of the Rangers game isn't a surprise; that it was announced he would sit no more than 15 minutes after Malkin said a decision would be made after he skated today was.
Indeed, Malkin had sounded relatively optimistic about his chances of rejoining the lineup tonight after making it through practice with no significant problems.
"I can't say whether I'll play or not," he said. "I think I'm ready, but we'll see [today] how my head feels."
While there seems to be some question about just how his head will feel today, it looks to be a given that his knee will be a non-issue.
That has been the case for a while, according to Malkin.
"The knee feels all right," he said. "I had a little bit of pain before, but now it feels all right."
If it was giving him trouble during Monday's workout, it didn't show. Malkin showed no overt signs of struggle or distress, and his skating stride and shot velocity looked reasonably powerful.
He confirmed that he is not wearing a brace, and said his knee, which forced him to miss four games in early December, is "100 percent."
Although Malkin's offensive output -- 15 goals and 22 assists in 42 games -- and overall performance this season have been disappointing, his teammates understand what a difference-maker he can be.
"When he's healthy and he's feeling good ... we've seen it in spurts this year, him dominating games and carrying our team," left winger Chris Kunitz said.
Like when he piled up five points Dec. 20 against Phoenix, and when Malkin recorded his sixth career hat trick Nov. 13 in Atlanta. The flashes of excellence, however, have been far too rare for a player who long has been a fixture in discussions about the world's finest players.
Malkin's gaudy resume earned him a place in those conversations, but it also denies him the opportunity to struggle in relative privacy. When a player with his pedigree doesn't perform to expectations, people notice.
"I think that probably a spotlight is on a more gifted player, a higher-end player, when they're injured, because he was a scoring champion and a Conn Smythe winner," Bylsma said. "So a drop in the level of play or production, you may look for reasons."
While injuries might be the most common explanation, the simple truth is that players seldom have the luxury of being at their physical peak for extended periods. That doesn't prevent some from producing at -- or above -- the level expected.
"Part of playing in the National Hockey League is that you're rarely at 100 percent," Bylsma said. "Dealing with that and playing your best, given those circumstances, is a challenge a lot of players go through on a yearly basis. That's been a challenge for [Malkin].
"[He] has played some good hockey and hasn't got the production for us this year. He's worked on other parts of his game and I think has gotten better in some of those areas, but hasn't gotten the production, so the spotlight is on him."
So is the onus to elevate his overall performance, regardless of when he gets back in the lineup.
"Before playoffs, I need to [lift] my game," Malkin said. "We have 30 games left.
"I need to play my game before the playoffs, [get it to] 100 percent."
"When he's healthy and he's feeling good ... we've seen it in spurts this year, him dominating games and carrying our team."
Chris Kunitz, on teammate Evgeni Malkin
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 1, 2011 5:00 AM