Evgeni Malkin tallied 77 points in 67 games during an injury-plagued 2009-10 NHL season that was widely regarded as disappointing. After all, coming off of an Art Ross-winning 2008-09 season, expectations were high for Malkin.
Logic would dictate that those very expectations were a bit out of hand, especially considering Malkin averaged over a point a game over the course of the season. What more should one expect? What more could one expect?
The start of this season began with Malkin showing much of the same - consistent, solid offensive output, a bit under a point a game, but nothing approaching what we had seen two years prior. As November carried on, he began to fade as Sidney Crosby's scoring streak kicked into high gear.
Finally succumbing to a left knee injury, Malkin sat out for nearly two weeks. During the inaugural episode of HBO's behind-the-scenes NHL 24/7, which took place during Malkin's time off, he could be seen gleefully skating through practice, telling Dan Bylsma that he wasn't yet ready to play in a game, but was very ready to work the power play in.
The extra work must have paid off. Malkin returned in a big way against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 12, scoring two goals on the power play in a losing effort. The following night, Geno did it again, scoring the Penguins' lone goal against the New York Rangers. Things were beginning to look up for Malkin.
On Monday night, Malkin put the entire NHL on alert, putting up five points during a 6-1 demolition of the Phoenix Coyotes.
No, fans shouldn't expect Malkin to put up five points a night. This isn't a video game. What fans should expect is a Malkin capable of doing this and, on occasion, actually going it. For too long, Malking looked dangerous instead of actually being dangerous. No longer.
This was the Evgeni Malkin who made the Penguins' three-center model work, able to carry a line on his own. This was the Evgeni Malkin who forced people to wonder whether he was better than Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. Flashes of this dominance had been seen earlier, in November, when he put up a hat trick against Atlanta and three assists against Carolina. But that wasn't quite what we're seeing from Malkin now, as he roams the ice with the gaze of a predator, looking for the kill shot.
At his best, Malkin invites comparisons to Mario Lemieux, showing incredible ability to stretch himself around defenders at will. For some time, that was gone, as Malkin occasionally looked lost, frustrated, prone to the retaliatory penalty and unable to really hit top gear.
Since his return from injury, though, Malkin has shown that he may be ready to return to the dominant form last seen from him in 2008-09. For the Penguins' to truly become a Stanley Cup contender this year, he must.