MONTREAL - The Pittsburgh Penguins' dream is to have their Big Three centres healthy by the end of the season, but for now Evgeni Malkin is carrying the load on his own.
The 25-year-old Russian leads the NHL scoring race and has been a workhorse for the Penguins while they await the return of Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal from injuries. Some see Malkin playing as well or even better than in 2008-'09 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP while leading Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup.
''Definitely he's playing in the same range as in '09,'' defenceman Kris Letang said Tuesday. ''He's strong, every game he's ready to go and he's really concentrating on what he has to do.
''You can even see him playing well defensively, so that's a good sign from a guy like that.''
Malkin has scored 14 goals in as many games, with at least one point in 20 of the last 25 games.
The rangy centre's scoring and Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending are big reasons why the Penguins have kept on winning and stayed safely in a playoff position despite a run of injuries that is among the worst in the 30-team league.
The players say it also helps that they have been in this situation before. Last season, Crosby played only 41 games—one less than Staal and two fewer than Malkin—due to injuries. The Penguins still finished 49-25-8, although they were ousted in the first round of playoffs.
Crosby, whose woes began when he took blows to the head in consecutive games in early January 2011, took part in a full practice on Monday and was on the ice again for an optional skate Tuesday morning. There is no word yet on when the former league MVP will be able to return from his concussion symptoms and/or neck injury.
Staal was to miss a 15th game with a knee injury, but he has been cleared to practise and is expected back in a week to 10 days.
The Penguins have had their top three centres together for only the eight games Crosby was able to play from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5 before his concussion symptoms reappeared. He posted 12 points as the team went 5-2-1 in that span.
Crosby said this week he has been feeling better since he had an injection last week to reduce swelling in soft tissue in his neck. He is more optimistic of a recovery now that the focus of treatment is on his neck instead of the concussion symptoms.
He looked like his old, super-talented self on the ice, and clearly enjoyed being back skating with his teammates.
But as he has done in the past, most notably in 2007-08 when Crosby missed a long spell with an ankle injury, Malkin has taken the offence on his shoulders.
''This month and half was exceptional,'' said coach Dan Bylsma. ''It was awesome hockey, dominating games, the number of points put up. If he did that for seven months straight it would be an unbelievable thing.''
Malkin has done it even though opposing teams can key on him without worrying about Crosby or Staal.
His line with James Neal—who is having a career season—and Chris Kunitz faces the other team's best each game. But the line still keeps scoring.
''I would say in the last two months we've seen a concerted effort in lines matchups and defensive pairings against Kunitz, Malkin and Neal,'' added Bylsma.''Whether it's home or road.
"They've seen that a long time, so it is astonishing to see him come through. Even the game against Montreal (a comeback 5-4 win on Jan. 20), they did a very good job of limiting their chances, but he still comes up with that goal late in the game to tie it.''
With Crosby back to take over the first line and Staal to centre the third, opposing clubs have tougher choices to make.
''That's really evident when you're behind the bench and you have 87 (Crosby), 11 (Staal) and 71 (Malkin) in the lineup,'' said Bylsma. ''Matchups are really difficult for the other team, to figure out which defensive pair and which line and what they want to look at.''
The Penguins are also without checking forward Arron Asham (concussion symptoms) and forward Tyler Kennedy (lower body).