Monday, May 25, 2009

The Forgotten Superstar

Superstars are the lifeblood of the world of sports, and no sport is in more dire need of the benefits of star power more than hockey. Still recovering from the fallout of the ignominious lockout and the subsequent canceling of the 2004-2005 season, the NHL is desperately trying to rid itself of the stigma of "niche sport" and return to its rightful place among the four major sports. Thanks to a much needed infusion of young talent and a riveting 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs (including a renewal of the Bruins-Habs rivalry and Gary Bettman's dream scenario of a 7-game Pens-Caps series), an auspicious future lies ahead for the NHL. Many credit hockey's recent pseudo-resurgence to the much ballyhooed rivalry between Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin, but lost in this debate is possibly the only under-the-radar superstar of any sport: Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (the one possible exception: Kevin Durant).
If it is possible to lead the NHL in regular season scoring and be a Hart Trophy finalist while flying - or in this case, skating - under the radar, Malkin has pulled it off. His on-ice exploits are no secret to puck die-hards, but he is largely unappreciated by the casual fan (as is the sport itself). After being the second overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft, the gifted centerman burst onto the scene by winning the 2007 Calder Trophy (as the NHL's top rookie), being named a Hart Trophy finalist in his 2008 and 2009 campaigns, and winning the 2009 Art Ross Trophy (as the NHL's scoring champ). Quite a resume for a team's so called "second best" player.

Lacking the notoriety and bad boy image of fellow Russian Ovechkin and avoiding the limelight and pressure that seems to be reserved for teammate and NHL golden boy Sidney Crosby, Malkin has flourished, forcing himself to be included in the "NHL's best player" debate. At the time of this posting, Malkin is the leader in postseason scoring (28) and second in postseason goals (12), legitimizing his status as a big time playoff performer. Anyone who is not yet convinced of Malkin's place among hockey's elite, check out his video game-esque goal which clinched a hat trick against stellar netminder Cam Ward in Game 2 of Pittsburgh's Eastern Conference Finals matchup with Carolina. That filthy backhand certainly rivals Ovechkin's much hyped one-on-five goal in Game 5 of Washingon's first round series against the Rangers. You be the judge.

Ultimately, I believe it is time that the NHL's other talented Russian* receive his due as not merely one of the NHL's best young players, not simply a second fiddle on a talent-ridden Penguins roster, but as a legitimate superstar. It would be disingenuous not to put Sid the Kid and Alex the Great atop that list as well, as they are the standard to which all elite NHL players should be judged. But Malkin, the forgotten superstar, is closing the abject horror of opposing players and coaches across the league.

As the Penguins enjoy a 3-0 series lead over Carolina, all but assured of a second straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance, Malkin stands upon the cusp of greatness - five victories away from hockey immortality and a place in Pittsburgh lore, among the likes of Lemieux and Jagr. And with Malkin and notable cohorts Crosby and Jordan Staal all 22 or younger, the Penguins appear poised to dominate the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the entire league, for potentially the next decade. As a Bruins fan, I am terrified. As a hockey fan, I am pinching myself. Rest assured, Evgeni, you won't be forgotten for long.

*Not to suggest that Malkin and Ovechkin are the only talented Russians in the NHL. Other notable talents include Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, and Washington's Alexander Semin, among many other natives of the reservoir of hockey talent that is Russia.

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