Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel were having a loud, good-natured spat in the Penguins dressing room after practice Tuesday in Cranberry. The topic was which one would have to stay and speak with the reporters who were entering. Eventually, it was decided that it would be Kessel, with the concession that he would talk about Malkin.
And so Kessel did. And so did several other players, along with coach Mike Sullivan.
It’s unclear whether the push they made for Malkin to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP was organic or orchestrated – team captain Sidney Crosby sometimes used to give teammates a heads-up about topics reporters were likely to ask and advise them of the company line. The sentiment Tuesday certainly seemed genuine.
“Why should someone else be it but him? He plays on a good team. Back-to-back Cups. He should win it,” Kessel said. “You watch him play. He’s playing hard. He’s doing all the little things right also. He’s scoring goals. He’s making plays.”
Malkin’s 87 points are one behind Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov for the NHL lead, and his 39 goals are third, three back of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and two behind Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine. He has turned it up when it counts, too. Since Jan. 1, Malkin has 25 goals, 51 points – that’s 10 points more than the next player, Crosby, in that span.
His teammates did not cite any of those numbers specifically or drop any advanced stats into the conversation. The eye test stands out for them.
Kessel fears that Malkin, 31, is taken for granted because he has been so good for so many seasons. Among his trophies and awards are the Calder, two Art Rosses, a Hart, a Conn Smythe and three Stanley Cups.
“Sometimes they don’t notice it because he’s been around so long. He’s done it for so long,” Kessel said. “If someone else is (drawing Hart notice) the same as him, they talk about them. I don’t think that should be the case.”
Crosby — whose hardware collection includes two Harts, two Art Rosses, two Conn Smythes and two Rocket Richard trophies for most goals – noted that Malkin “has turned it up to another level.”
‘Best I’ve Ever Seen Him Play’
Patric Hornqvist, who has been playing on Malkin’s right wing, also gave a nomination speech.
“He’s should be up there for sure,” Hornqvist said of the Hart. “The way he’s been playing lately, it’s the best I’ve ever seen him play. You can see it on the scoreboard, too. He’s one point behind Kucherov. He’s been good for us. It’s fun to play with him, too.”
The Hart Trophy voting is conducted at the end of the regular season by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. No one knows what might sway the voters, but that isn’t quieting the Penguins on their quest to stump for Malkin.
Sullivan gave the most extended testimonial.
“He’s been one of our most consistent players, for sure,” the coach said. “When you look at what he’s accomplished from maybe Christmastime on, I think his numbers speak for themselves. His offensive numbers, for sure. He’s been a dynamic player. He’s a threat every time he’s on the ice.”
He was just getting started.
“This is as good as I’ve seen ‘Geno’ play since I’ve been the coach here. He’s a terrific player. He’s an elite player. He’s one of those guys who can change the outcome of a game. And he has done that for us.
His game is locked in right now.”
Sullivan concluded by noting that not only is it not all about numbers but that Malkin also is far from padding his stats with cherry-picking or cheating defensively.
“What our coaching staff has really grown to appreciate is just his commitment to play at both ends of the rink,” Sullivan said. “He’s done a really good job at playing away from the puck and making sure he defends when we need him to.
“I think he understands that that’s how you win championships.”
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