PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Pittsburgh Penguins finished up a 12-game win streak only last week, yet they might be a better team now than they were then.
Evgeni Malkin is making them better.
Malkin is finally showing off the flashy game that was missing most of the season, with five goals and three assists in three games. Accompanying those goals was the razzle dazzle that helped make the Russian-born Malkin the NHL's leading scorer and playoffs MVP two seasons ago.
Malkin, admittedly slowed by a left knee injury that forced him to wear a thin brace, was almost a non-factor during the second-longest winning streak in Penguins history. He scored goals in only six of their first 31 games, a replay of his disappointing post-Stanley Cup season a year ago.
Since Malkin took four games off to rest the knee, he again resembles the player who was once considered to be Crosby's near equal.
Malkin had two goals and three assists in the first two periods of Pittsburgh's 6-1 victory over Phoenix on Monday night, reminding the Penguins what they've been missing even as they've compete with division rival Philadelphia for the NHL's best record.
"I was just trying to keep up with him," said Crosby, who had a goal and an assist against the Coyotes yet wasn't the best player on the ice.
"For Sidney Crosby to shake his head a little bit and say, 'Wow,' is a unique thing," coach Dan Bylsma said.
Resting Malkin for 12 days might have been exactly what was needed to get him back on his game. He had both Penguins goals during a streak-ending 3-2 loss in Philadelphia on Dec. 14, then scored again a night later against the Rangers. Then, after Pittsburgh enjoyed a rare four-day break, he matched his career high with his five-point night against Phoenix.
"It's close to 100 per cent because it's not painful now," Malkin said of the sore knee. "I'm trying to chase guys and work hard close to the boards. Yeah, it's close to 100 per cent."
Not exactly what Pittsburgh's opponents wanted to hear with Crosby already playing at peak level, with a league-high 57 points and 27 goals in 34 games. Malkin has 13 goals and 30 points in 29 games, ranking him only 29th among all scorers going into Tuesday night's games.
"You could see that the injury was bothering him," Penguins defenceman Kris Letang said.
Worn down by the short offseasons that followed Pittsburgh's runs to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and '09, Malkin's drop-off in performance began last season. He finished with 77 points, 36 fewer than the season before, although he also missed 15 games with injuries.
After scoring two goals in Pittsburgh's first playoff game last season, he had only three more goals in the next 12 games, and none in its last four against Montreal.
When the 24-year-old Malkin got off to a slow start this season, Bylsma defended him.
"We'd all like to see him put up bigger numbers and have the type of season he had two years ago," Bylsma said. "He just has to keep getting better and more focused on shooting the puck and attacking the net and playing in those areas, because he's a dominant player when he does."
Or exactly what he did against Phoenix. Afterward, an exasperated Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said, "This is not who we are, this is not who we are going to be."
The NHL probably hopes this is who the Penguins are going to be, especially as the Winter Classic against Washington approaches Jan. 1. Until now, much of the pre-Classic focus has been on Crosby (great season) and Ovechkin (somewhat disappointing season), but adding a third star into the mix adds a different dimension.
After all, it was Malkin, not Crosby, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP in 2009. To make sure Malkin stayed with the Penguins, Crosby took less money than he could make elsewhere so the Penguins could pay Malkin the identical US$8.7 million salary he commands.
"It's always scary when you have those two guys on the ice at the same time," Letang said. "They're playing great together. The chemistry is really good.
"Geno is a tremendous player. I think he can be one of the best players in the league, one of the top two."