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Why Evgeni Malkin’s 1,000th game means more than you think

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CHICAGO — There’s another way Evgeni Malkin’s Sunday night should have gone.

The Penguins would have played in Pittsburgh, not Chicago. A pregame ceremony would have honored him, not Marián Hossa. His parents would have attended, not watched from afar on a screen in Magnitogorsk, Russia.

But everything that wasn’t available to Malkin for his 1,000th game and the fact that it was almost like an afterthought, was fitting.

He’s always The Other.

Alex Ovechkin was the only player picked ahead of Malkin in the 2004 NHL Draft. It’s been Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goals record that has eclipsed Malkin’s own historic accomplishments. Only 14 NHL players had scored more than Malkin’s 1,165 points going into their 1,000th game.

Sidney Crosby is the pillar of the Penguins. Crosby is their captain, their No. 1 center, the player with as many scoring titles but also one more Hart and Conn Smythe trophy win — not to mention the first Penguins player to have played in 1,000 games.

He’s been injured a lot.

He’s also put together a Hall-of-Fame resume largely without his family seeing much of it in-person. His parents and brother can spend only a few months of each year in America because of rules restricting travel for Russian citizens. His wife and son split their time between Pittsburgh and Malkin’s residence just outside of Miami, where his son Nikita is enrolled in school with other Russian-speaking children.

Malkin’s wife, Anna, and son surprised him by flying to Chicago for the game. Malkin said seeing his son in the locker room prior to the contest “made me smile” — a positive feeling on “an emotional night for me.”

Scoring a goal in a win also helped lift his emotions.

His Penguins were struggling to find themselves early in the season, but they’re now on a 5-1-1 run after a seven-game winless skid. Malkin re-signed with the franchise after a tumultuous negotiation this past summer in part because he wanted to start and finish his career in Pittsburgh, but also because he believed these Penguins had the makings of a Cup contender.

More than anything else he has left to do in the NHL, Malkin desperately wants to become the first Russian-born player to win a fourth Cup title — and it’s unclear, after their 5-3 win against the Blackhawks on Sunday night, how serious a championship challenge these Penguins can mount this season.

So no, Malkin’s actual 1,000th NHL game wasn’t accompanied by a celebratory vibe. Instead, it was another game played without his parents, one in which he wasn’t the star attraction but rather a supporting actor.

Russians to play 1,000 NHL games

Player

  

Games

  

Alex Kovalev

1,316

Sergei Gonchar

1,301

Alex Ovechkin

1,294

Sergei Fedorov

1,248

Vaycheslav Kozlov

1,182

Alexei Zhitnik

1,085

Sergei Zubov

1,068

Evgeni Malkin

1,000

Played with PIT

This isn’t how it should have been for Malkin. But just as he was once inexplicably left off the NHL’s own list of its 100 greatest players — a decision that none other than Mario Lemieux called “a joke,” a snub that Malkin said “hurt me deeply” — Malkin was left to play his historic 1,000th game largely in the shadows, which is where he’s spent much of his career.

And Malkin, probably more than any all-time player, certainly more than any player to do as much as he’s done, deserved a day in the spotlight for his 1,000th game. He certainly deserved to feel better about making it to this grand achievement.

“I agree,” Malkin said a few weeks ago. “But it’s not my control.

“Maybe you can write?”

During Malkin’s first season, we spent many days getting to know one another by engaging in short, seemingly unimportant conversations. Topics ranged from what he ate for breakfast to why he used such a short hockey stick. Those short talks led to deeper dives down the road.

The small conversations were the brainchild of Sergei Gonchar, Malkin’s teammate and at-the-time landlord, a man who would go on to become a trusted friend for each of us. At the time, Gonchar worried about Malkin’s hesitance to do interviews because he was not comfortable speaking to North-American reporters through an interpreter. Gonchar also recognized that I was a willing public voice for Malkin.

“I thought you could help each other,” Gonchar said.

More than a decade later, on my second trip to Moscow to visit Malkin for work, he stopped one of our interviews to thank me for “writing Geno stories.”

“You’ve been good for me,” Malkin said.

Actually, it’s Malkin who has been good for me. He’s been there for me, too.


Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and The Athletic’s Rob Rossi during an interview at Malkin’s Florida home in June 2017. (Rob Rossi / The Athletic)

Around a year ago this time, I was sick and couldn’t work because of the sudden onset of Functional Neurological Disorders. At the same time, Malkin was finishing his recovery from a second major knee surgery. Monitoring his comeback attempt from afar, mostly through updates from Gonchar and Malkin’s wife, I realized my condition would not afford me the chance to see Malkin’s return game. So I did something I try not to do too much and reached out directly to Malkin during a season — to wish him well, but also to let him know how happy I was for him to be back doing what he loved.

I could barely speak but couldn’t write, so I sent him the best video I could.

A Penguins employee sent me an email the next day. In it was an explanation that Malkin had received my message, but was focusing on his own recovery at the time.

A few days later, Malkin reached out himself. He explained he didn’t know how to respond to seeing a video of me stuttering and shaking. He said it rattled him. He said he was worried about me. He also offered to “help in every way.”

I couldn’t let him, of course. We’ve probably too often inched too close to the line that should divide a reporter and an athlete. To accept help financially from Malkin would have been wrong.

Still, I’d be lying to say his gesture didn’t mean the world to me. In fact, it largely inspired me to be public about my disorder and attack it — just as Evgeni had always attacked things in his life.

He didn’t accept being coerced by his hometown Russian club into signing a contract that would have delayed his NHL career by more than a season. Instead, he had his agent, J.P. Barry, orchestrate an escape plan.

He didn’t cede to either Ovechkin or Crosby upon arriving in the NHL, but rather Malkin challenged them — and for a brief spell surpassed both — in their three-man arms race to become the world’s best hockey player.

He’s worn his heart on his sleeve after professional setbacks, whether they be injuries, tough team losses or personal failures to produce up to his standard. He’s taken fair criticisms and turned them into strengths, which is how Malkin went from not knowing the names of some teammates in his first few years to now being alongside Crosby now as a Penguins leader.

What we see isn’t often what we get with Malkin, because he uses his “Geno” character as a form of protection. Some people are lucky enough to have witnessed Evgeni, and that guy is a proud, loyal, determined, funny and caring emotional player and person.

Despite all the imperfections surrounding his 1,000th game that could imply otherwise, Malkin has always been more than The Other for the Penguins and for Pittsburgh.

Observations

• Class moves by the Blackhawks organization to honor Malkin with an in-game salute.

Brock McGinn’s scoring is a secondary asset considering the physicality and defensive attributes he brings as a bottom-six forward. However, there’s nothing secondary about the heater he’s on, as his sixth goal opened the scoring for the Penguins against the Blackhawks.

McGinn has a goal in five of his past seven games.

When he ran off goals in three consecutive games from Nov. 9-12, it was reasonable to wonder if general manager Ron Hextall should try trading McGinn given the Penguins’ cap situation. Maybe that would still be a smart move; the Penguins’ cap is going to be arguably their toughest adversary this season, especially with Kasperi Kapanen being a healthy scratch at a $3.2-million hit. That said, not sure how anybody makes an argument these Penguins aren’t better off with this version of McGinn.

Tough call for Hextall.

Rickard Rakell showed his diverse skills with the decision he made to pass to McGinn on the Penguins’ first goal and the whip shot on which he scored the Penguins’ third goal. A lot of players would have dumped the puck instead of showing the patience to wait and feed McGinn. Not Rakell. Likewise, a lot of players wouldn’t have been able to accurately fire from the angle upon which Rakell did.

He’s a fantastic fit for this team. Not stylistically, but he reminds a little of Chris Kunitz in that he can play with either Crosby or Malkin and bring a completely different dimension to either of the two top lines.

• The Blackhawks are the lowest-scoring club in the league. The Penguins surrendered three consecutive goals after going ahead by a 3-0 score. That’s concerning because it’s not the first blown multiple-goal lead this season. In fact, there’s almost been too many to count.

Yeah, Crosby scored shortly after the Blackhawks pulled even. Still, the Penguins can play shutdown games. They did it in Winnipeg on Saturday night. They need to do it more consistently, even if they’re playing three games in four nights, as they were against the Blackhawks.

Oh, by the way: Crosby’s goal was his first in the United Center. That’s unthinkable unless you consider how poorly the Penguins have played in Chicago.

Anyway, it was quite a road trip for the Penguins’ captain. He started and ended the three-game trek with four-point games and finished with 10 points overall.

That is some leadership, as the Penguins went from near the bottom of the Eastern Conference to within a point of a wild-card slot on this trip.

• The Penguins’ coaches will be sporting mustaches for a while. That was the deal coach Mike Sullivan cut with players prior to this three-game road trip. If the Penguins won in Minnesota and Winnipeg, coaches would grow mustaches and keep them until the NHL’s Christmas break. When the Penguins added a win in Chicago, those mustaches became guaranteed to stay on the behind-the-benchers until the Winter Classic outdoor game between the Penguins and Bruins at Fenway Park.

Might seem silly, but it also shows that Sullivan knows his players and realized that dangling a carrot such as this good-natured bit could help keep the environment loose heading into what’s been an important road trip.

• May as well end this one with a neat note about Malkin: he now has a point in 71 percent of his 1,000 games.

(Top photo: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)



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