Russian Proverb Number 1: Bol'shoi sekret—znaet ves' svet. (Big secret—all the world knows.)
Evgeni Malkin wraps the blade of his Easton EQ SS stick with white tape, a color preference he shares with maybe 20% of NHL players. But technique, not hue, differentiates a Malkin tape job: He starts at the toe and works backward. A Malkin-izing should be relatively easy to recognize for a practiced eye because the spot where he rips the tape upon completion—literally, the tail of the tape—is at the heel and not the toe. These nuances are noteworthy only because a punk'd Sidney Crosby, a staunch black-tape guy, should have been able to identify the unknown prankster (well, unknown until now) who wrapped his sticks a telltale white when the injured Penguins captain was with the team in November in San Jose.
There is an even more obvious Malkin calling card, one the 6'3", 195-pound center drops around NHL arenas the way the Lone Ranger once left a silver bullet. He will slip the puck inside the isosceles triangle formed by the defender's stick and skates, unsettling an opponent who has been instructed to take away Malkin's space but who now finds that Malkin has invaded his space. Malkin gains leverage. Then he leans like a skier at a slalom gate, stick-handles and whoosh! He is a conjurer who has created the illusion he has gone through a defender rather than around him.
"Those are incredible displays of hand-puck skills, much to the chagrin of his coach," said Dan Bylsma, who actually is his coach, as he sat in a Boston hotel lobby last month. "Coming out of the [defensive] zone, he'll go underneath a guy's stick three, four times a game, into the triangle. Sometimes he looks like he's doing it for pleasure. Just because he can, you know? Everybody in the world would think it's a bad move, but he's done it 18 times in the last five games, and it's gone wrong once. Kinda tough for me to say, 'No, don't do it.'"
Bylsma worries about Malkin although, in truth, the consternation is directed inward rather than at his player. Bylsma wonders if he bores him. He senses Malkin always knows what he is going to say on the bench or in meetings, just like the center already knows what a defender will do on the ice. Or should do, anyway. When Malkin botches the Triangle Move, it usually is because the defender has made the wrong play, or at least the unanticipated play, rather than the play Malkin already had factored into his personal equation.
Malkin is so hockey smart, he is almost gaming the game. In Crosby's continued absence, Malkin has, after so many seasons, reintroduced himself, stepping into the role of the most dominant, dynamic player in the world ... and, like the Russian proverb, it is a secret the whole world is beginning to know.
"[The Red Wings' Pavel] Datsyuk's a great player, but he'll look to pass first," says Coyotes' development coach Dave King, who coached Malkin for one season with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the former Russian Super League. "And [the Capitals' Alex] Ovechkin, he'll look to shoot, which is unlike so many of the Russians and what makes him so unusual. [Malkin] keeps you honest."
"Geno can dominate because he understands the spatial part of the game so well," says Bylsma, using the Americanization of Malkin's Russian nickname, which is pronounced ZHEN-ya. "In sheer skill level Geno probably has to be rated higher [than Crosby]. There's magic there, a little bit different than what Sid has."
"I just don't know why he's not getting that top-top-top-guy notoriety," Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell says. "But he will be, for sure."
Camouflaged by Crosby's doggedness and technical excellence and dwarfed by Ovechkin's outsized personality and fluency in English, Malkin sometimes hides in plain sight—even though his NHL-best three five-point games this season should make his gifts as apparent as his tape jobs. Malkin, remember, won the Calder Trophy in 2007. He won the scoring title two years later. More significant, he won the Conn Smythe on the '09 Stanley Cup champions. Currently he leads the NHL with 78 points, while centering 30-goal-scorer James Neal and Chris Kunitz on a line that has accounted for 84 of the Penguins' 191 goals. He has had consecutive-game point streaks of nine, six and five, keeping Pittsburgh comfortably in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack even though Crosby, center Jordan Staal and Norris Trophy--caliber defenseman Kris Letang have missed a combined 97 games. He has three hat tricks; the most recent one last Saturday included a goal that saw him weave through five Lightning defenders like Gale Sayers running for daylight.