When Evgeni Malkin was asked after the morning skate Tuesday what Sidney Crosby's return to the lineup meant for him, he said, "It just means I have to talk less."
You'd think a guy such as Malkin might have a bit of a long face with the return of Crosby to the lineup Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. After all, Malkin's ice time will certainly diminish, as will his opportunities to handle the puck, his scoring chances, and in all likelihood, his offensive production.
The fact is, Malkin vaulted himself into a threat for the scoring title and serious consideration for the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP after Crosby was injured Jan. 18. In the 21 games Crosby missed, Malkin scored 14 goals and 35 points to put himself on a 1.67 points-per-game pace. Compare that to when Crosby was healthy – 23-30-53 in 56 games for a scoring pace of 0.95 points per game.
A Russian player has never won the NHL scoring title, but Malkin's production in Crosby's absence put him second behind Alex Ovechkin in the points race and created the potential for Russians to finish 1-2 in scoring. That likely won't happen now that Crosby is back in the lineup, but at least Malkin can take some solace in knowing the points Crosby gets instead of himself will not take any money out of his pocket.
That's because Malkin has all but clinched each of his personal bonuses this season and stands to collect more than $3.8 million. Even if Malkin fails to score another point the rest of this season, he'll finish with 88 points, which means he'll automatically receive $850,000 for scoring at a rate of at least 0.73 points per game. He has already collected $212,500 for scoring at least 20 goals, 35 assists or 60 points and another $212,500 for appearing in the All-Star Game.
Malkin stands to collect $2 million if he finishes in the top 10 in goals, assists, points or points per game, something he should be able to accomplish with even a decent modicum of production down the home stretch. He could hit the bonus also by finishing in the top five in voting for any one of the major post-season awards.
As far as Crosby is concerned, the Penguins expect to ease him into the lineup over the next few games and it will be interesting to see how he plays when Marian Hossa returns to the lineup, something that is expected Sunday when the Penguins are in Washington to play the Capitals on NBC.
For Tuesday night's game, Crosby is expected to play between Maxime Talbot and Pascal Dupuis, with Malkin between Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone. When Hossa returns, the first line will likely feature Crosby between Talbot and Hossa, while Dupuis will likely move to the third unit with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.
Veteran Gary Roberts, who is also scheduled to return soon, will likely see duty on the fourth line.
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