By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - An inspired Evgeni Malkin has taken over the mantle of Pittsburgh Penguins leader with an MVP-caliber season that has ensconced his team in the thick of the playoff hunt despite the prolonged concussion-related absence of captain Sidney Crosby.
Malkin got off to a slow start after offseason knee surgery but his return to top form has sent a message that Pittsburgh are very much a legitimate contender to represent NHL's Eastern Conference in this year's Stanley Cup finals.
"We have a great team, great coaches and... we work for just one thing, to win the Stanley Cup," the 25-year-old Russian said after Pittsburgh had their eight-game winning streak snapped with a 1-0 road loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.
"And when Sidney comes back and (Jordan Staal) I think we have an unbelievable team and if we work hard we have a great chance to win."
While the hockey world awaits word on whether Crosby will return this season, Malkin, who possesses a lethal combination of size, skill and a sharp hockey brain, has stepped up and shown he is capable of carrying a team.
Malkin, after all, is a former Art Ross Trophy winner as the league's top scorer and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player (MVP) of the playoffs when Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
So rather than let a shot at a second Stanley Cup slip away just because Crosby is battling health issues, Malkin has seized the spotlight and hauled Pittsburgh into a prime playoff position for his team mate's potential return.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, who has been in charge since the second half of the 2008-09 campaign, said he has never seen Malkin, who has 14 points in his last 10 games, play at such a high level during the regular season.
He praised Malkin, a four-time All-Star in six NHL seasons, for not only performing on the ice but acting as a leader for his team mates in the dressing room.
"Our team has played well in a lot of games but he's been a guy who has really driven the team, and that's on the ice and off the ice," Bylsma said. "It's tough to say he's not the most dominant player on the ice night in and night out and really been a real leader for our team in that regard."
On Tuesday against the Leafs in Pittsburgh, Malkin tied the game with seven seconds to play and then scored the lone goal in the shootout to give the Penguins the win but he went pointless on Wednesday for the first time in more than a week.
The winning surge is quite a turnaround for a Pittsburgh team that is just three weeks removed from a six-game losing skid that had put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
But despite Malkin's return to form that has inspired the entire team, the main talking point surrounding the red-hot Penguins for most of the season has been whether Crosby, the face of the NHL, will be joining them anytime soon.
Crosby, out for most of the last 13 months after suffering a concussion, learned this week that he has a soft-tissue neck injury that can cause symptoms associated with a concussion. He has not played since December 5 and his return date is unknown.
While playing the bulk of the season without Crosby, the Penguins are the league's hottest team and are just seven points out of first place overall in the NHL with 31 games to play in the regular season.
Malkin has almost singlehandedly salvaged what once looked to be a lost cause for Pittsburgh but Bylsma is quick to point out that the Russian's main focus is helping his team win.
"It's not about scoring titles, it's not about (individual) trophies," said Bylsma. "Every conversation about our team and his role ends up with thinking we can win Stanley Cups and thinking how good our team can be."
(Editing by John O'Brien)