LAS VEGAS -- Penguins center Evgeni Malkin gets it. He understands that this is a trip to a city where hockey folks come in June to let loose a little and, oh yeah, stage an awards gala.
"We'll see [other players later Tuesday night], go out, just have fun," he said Tuesday at a large gathering of NHL awards nominees and reporters.
Malkin looked around a crowded room at the Wynn hotel for Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, his teammate on Russia's gold-medal squad at the world championships a month ago. Datsyuk had come and gone.
"I don't know where he is," Malkin said, then cracked, "He's quick. Always quick."
Malkin, 25, was relaxed and upbeat, and he downplayed the fact that he is widely considered the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association and the Ted Lindsay Award as the best NHL player as voted by his peers.
The other finalists for those two top awards are Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Malkin also will accept the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league with 109 points, including 50 goals.
The awards show is tonight.
"I think everyone wants to win," Malkin said of his prospects. "Steven Stamkos and Henrik Lundqvist want to win. But I don't think about it a lot. The season is over and now I can't [change] anything."
For Malkin, the sting of the Penguins losing in the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia was lessened by his experience at the world championships in Finland and Sweden.
"It was a good tournament," said Malkin, who was named MVP and led all scorers with 19 points, including 11 goals, as Russia marched through at 10-0.
"Malkin did an unbelievable job during the season in the NHL, and he did really well in the world championships," Datsyuk said, then joked that Malkin carried the Russian team nearly single-handedly. "We just a little bit tried to help him -- just a little bit."
Malkin enjoyed the romp.
"I had fun the whole tournament," he said. "We just played every game 100 percent. I've never won that before. It's good for me.
"I felt a little better afterward. We won the gold medal. Now it's [about] working for next season, enjoy the summer with my family and my friends."
For the second summer in a row, Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar will travel to Moscow to work with Malkin. That seemed to be a good formula for Malkin a year ago when he was coming off of knee surgery that shortened his 2010-11 season.
Although tonight could end up being special for Malkin -- he has been a finalist for the Hart and Lindsay twice before but has yet to win either -- he seems more interested in what lies ahead.
"I want to play better 10 more years," he said. "I don't want to stay on the same level. I want to go up."
He also hopes he can do that with a Penguins team whose personnel doesn't change drastically.
He was heartened to hear that Penguins general manager Ray Shero earlier in the day pretty well doused the notion that he was near trading Jordan Staal, one of the Penguins' "big three" centers along with Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Staal and Crosby can be re-signed as soon as July 1, but would become unrestricted free agents if they aren't re-signed within a year of that day.
Malkin heard those rumblings about Staal perhaps being shipped out for salary cap reasons.
"I was a little nervous because Jordan Staal is a good player," Malkin said. "Sidney Crosby, too. It's tough to sign both. I hope we sign both. If we can sign both, it's a good chance to win again. Both are great guys."
Then Malkin smiled, not wanting to be left out of that conversation.
"I hope they sign me, too," he said. His contract runs one year longer than that of Crosby and Staal.
"I want to stay in Pittsburgh. I like Penguins hockey, the Penguins organization and the fans."
For 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. First Published June 20, 2012 12:00 AM