By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, March 12, 2012
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck in front of Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins during the game at Consol Energy Center on March 11, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
It's almost obscene how spoiled we've become with extraterrestrial-level hockey in our city. Anyone at Consol Energy Center on Sunday who was disappointed by the delayed return of the best player in the world had to settle instead for watching, you know, the best player in the world. But only after walking past a shiny new statue of the best player who ever lived.
And that's to say nothing of the main attraction on this matinee, the Penguins' 5-2 demolition of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, yet another sign that there shouldn't be many challengers to the local club later this spring.
These Penguins really are that good, that deep, that skilled, that tough and that together. They've won nine in a row and, remarkable as it sounds, they're about to get that much better with the imminent return of Sidney Crosby.
But let's hope no one loses sight of who got them this far, least of all the voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association who select the Hart Trophy winner.
Put it down in indelible ink: Evgeni Malkin for MVP.
"Oh, I don't know," Malkin said after his three-assist output put him back atop the NHL scoring race. "I'm not really thinking about it."
Come on, just a little?
"A little bit, maybe, of course," he conceded with a sheepish smile. "I see the signs up there when I warm up. People are asking me to sign pictures with 'MVP.' But I'm just focusing on the games."
Only 14 of those remain for the Penguins, and I can't see any way Malkin doesn't claim his first Hart after it's done.
Yes, his 84 points are just two more than Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.
Yes, Stamkos' 48 goals are 10 more than Malkin
Yes, the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist has shined in goal, the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux has been a playmaking machine, and the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson has been a dynamo on defense.
I don't care about any of it.
None of them matches up, and here are numbers to support the case:
• Malkin ranks No. 1 in the NHL at 1.37 points per game, weighing that he missed eight games in October while returning from major knee surgery.
• Malkin scores when it counts. Fifteen of his 38 goals have come in the third period or overtime. Three were game-winners, two others tying goals that led to OT wins.
• Malkin scores against the opponents that count. In 13 games against the Eastern Conference's top four teams, including the Bruins, he has eight goals and seven assists.
• This doesn't count in official stats, but Malkin is 8 for 11 in shootout attempts, his 72.7 percent rate trailing only the New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk. Stamkos is 0 for 3. The Penguins are 9-3 in shootouts, the Lightning 2-3.
Laugh off that last one if you will, but shootouts are part of the game now. They result in real points in the standings. The Lightning are 11th in the East, seven points out of the playoff picture.
Let me remind: The stated criteria for the Hart is that it goes to "the player adjudged most valuable to his team." Team is a key word there, and it's taken seriously. Voters haven't given the Hart to a player whose team missed the playoffs since Mario Lemieux in 1988.
Stamkos' case is nearly closed.
A stronger team case can be made for Lundqvist, whose Rangers are atop the East. But giving the Hart to a goaltender is tantamount to giving Major League Baseball's MVP to a pitcher. It rarely happens, just three times in the past 50 NHL seasons. Voters long have felt the Vezina is sufficient for goaltenders, barring truly great exceptions, and that's a view I've always shared. Dominik Hasek, for example, won the Hart twice when almost single-handedly carrying the Buffalo Sabres. He earned it.
Lundqvist doesn't belong in that category, not statistically — he leads the league only with his eight shutouts — and not in importance to his team. The Rangers' tight system under John Tortorella limits opponents to 28.4 shots per game, seventh-fewest in the NHL. And they're not exactly starved for offense, ranking 11th.
But forget all that.
Just open your eyes and watch Malkin dominate.
Better yet, listen to Pascal Dupuis' assessment of the situation, almost as elegant as his breakaway goal yesterday: "To me, it's simple. Geno's hands down the best player right now. Remember last year when Billy Guerin said that Sid was assaulting the league? Right now Geno is just ... in a different class. He's doing it all. It's not like he's sitting on the outside for those one-timers. He goes to the net. He makes it back on defense. He does everything. He's the best."
No need to overthink this.