Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)
It’s one thing to be the NHL’s leading scorer, as Evgeni Malkin was with his 109-point campaign. It’s another to make those around you better. But when the consensus best player in the world misses most of the season and his teammate emerges as the league’s best, carrying his team into the postseason and making them one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup, that’s greatness.
And there’s really no other way to characterize Malkin’s season: great. Despite Sidney Crosby playing just 22 games, the Penguins didn’t miss a beat with Malkin leading the charge. No, he doesn’t kill penalties, but neither did Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin or Henrik Sedin — who have combined to win four of the last five Hart trophies — when they took home the honor.
A case could of course be made for the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, who this season became just the second player in the 21st century to reach 60 goals. He was also second to Malkin in points with 97 and had 12 game-winning goals — tied for the ninth most in NHL history with a list of players that mostly reside in the Hall of Fame or will one day be there. And while Tampa Bay’s failure to make the postseason is a factor, it’s hard to imagine Stamkos beating out Pittsburgh’s star pivot even if the Lightning snuck back into the postseason.
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist also deserves consideration, putting together the best campaign of his impressive seven-season career. He set a career-high in wins with 39 despite playing in just 62 games — the fewest since his rookie season, when he had 53 appearances. He also allowed fewer than two goals a game (1.97) and cracked the .930 save percentage mark, also career firsts.
All that being said, goaltenders have won the Hart just three times since 1963 — twice by Dominik Hasek with the Sabres in the mid-‘90s and by Jose Theodore in 2002 with the Canadiens — so the odds of Lundqvist getting enough votes is slim.
In the end, though, it’s really all about Malkin. He hit 50 goals for the first time in his career and had just 15 games in which he was held without a point. Multi-point games? He had those as well — 31 of them. He also had an amazing four five-point games and finished the season with career bests in plus/minus (plus-18), game-winning goals (nine) and shots (NHL-high 339).
But it’s the way Malkin took the team on his back in Crosby’s absense that really makes him the league’s most valuable player. Yes, James Neal enjoyed a breakout campaign as one of four NHL players to reach 40 goals this year. But could he have done it without Malkin drawing all the attention night in and night out? Most would say no.
And now with Crosby back from his lingering concussion issues, the Penguins are that much more potent as they enter the postseason. Teams will find it nearly impossible to stop both Malkin and Crosby down the middle, and No. 3 center Jordan Staal is no slouch either.
The Penguins may very well be the Stanley Cup favorites in many people’s eyes because of Crosby’s return to health, but that’s only because he adds another dynamic talent to a team that already had the NHL’s best player in Malkin filling the score sheet for the them this season.