Sport Ron Cook: Evgeni Malkin deserves the Hart Trophy this season

18:58  13 march  2018
18:58  13 march  2018 Source:   Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Ron Cook says Penguins' center Evgeni Malkin is having a season worthy of the Hart Trophy. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)© Peter Diana/Post-Gazette Ron Cook says Penguins' center Evgeni Malkin is having a season worthy of the Hart Trophy. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

Sidney Crosby had one of the great calendar years in NHL history. In June 2016, he led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP. In September 2016, he led Canada to the World Cup of Hockey championship and was MVP. In June 2017, after leading the NHL with 44 goals during the regular season, he led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup and won the Smythe again. That’s why he is threatening to push Gordie Howe off hockey’s Mount Rushmore and take his place next to Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr.

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I never thought I’d see anyone play that well again.

But I am seeing it right now from a player who – forget Mount Rushmore – wasn’t even picked as one of the NHL’s all-time greatest 100 players a year ago.

“This is as good as I’ve seen Geno play in my tenure here,” Mike Sullivan said late Sunday night after Evgeni Malkin had a goal and assist in the Penguins’ 3-1 win against Dallas.

I’ve been around here a lot longer than Sullivan and have watched Malkin since he came into the NHL in 2006. I’ve never seen him play better. Not in 2012 when he scored 50 goals, led the league with 109 points and won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Not even in the 2009 playoffs when he led the Penguins to the Cup and won the Smythe. If his 1.7 points-per-game pace since Jan. 1 continues the rest of the season on a team that looks very capable of winning a third consecutive Cup and the fourth of the Crosby/Malkin era, it will be a crying shame if he doesn’t win the Hart again. His 39 goals were just one fewer than NHL leaders Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine going into Monday night’s games, his 87 points one fewer than Nikita Kucherov.

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“Night in and night out, he’s dynamic,” Sullivan said. “I’m stating the obvious when I say that. He’s as good a player, as dangerous a player, off the rush as there is in the league. We’ve tried to turn him into a little more of a shooter. I think he’s a guy who’s every bit as much of a scoring threat as he is a playmaker. He has the ability to do both. His offense speaks for itself. In a league where it’s hard to score, he’s filling the net.

“What I’ve grown to really appreciate about him is his overall two-way game. He’s playing an inspiring game — at both ends of the rink. He’s playing the right way. He’s really made a commitment to play away from the puck. He’s committed to playing a two-way game.”

Sullivan thought enough of that commitment that he matched Malkin’s line against the Stars’ top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. He mentioned Carl Hagelin’s speed and Patric Hornqvist’s toughness as being disruptive but gave much credit to Malkin for neutralizing the Seguin line. Radulov scored Dallas’ only goal on a 5-on-3 power play, but he, Seguin and Benn finished a combined minus-3.

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“That’s how you win championships,” Sullivan said.

That two-way game is why Malkin should win the Hart. He also deserves more consideration than other Hart candidates – Kucherov, Ovechkin, Laine and Taylor Hall among them -- because he’s a center. The demands on a center are greater than they are on a wing.

“Centers play such a pivotal role at both ends of the rink,” Sullivan said. “They’re usually the guys who distribute the puck. They’re usually the guys who drive the line …

“We’ve got a couple of those dynamic guys.”

The ability and willingness of Crosby and Malkin to co-exist in this me-first era of professional sports should not be overlooked or minimized. It, as much as their otherworldly talent, is a reason for their success and the Penguins’ success. Malkin has accepted Crosby is the face of not just the team, but the NHL. He accepts that Crosby is the team captain. He has set aside his ego even as he has become a better player and a better team leader.

“Sure, there’s a competition between them,” Sullivan said. “They’re both competitive guys. That’s what drives them to be their best. But they also understand how important they are to each other in order to help this team achieve its ultimate goal of winning championships. I know that’s what’s important to them. They’re different players in how they play, but I think there’s a great mutual respect between them. They both have a maturity level to them where they don’t take anything for granted. They know how hard it is to win in this league. They also know they need each other to do it. They have a great appreciation for each other.”

Crosby won the Hart in 2014 and 2007. It’s only right that Malkin wins it this season to match him with two.

Ron Cook: and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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