Seasoned Malkin keeping Penguins among the elite

The Pittsburgh Penguins know that replacing Sidney Crosby is no easy task.

Evgeni Malkin is making it look not only possible, but, at times, easy.

Now that is not to say that the Penguins wouldn't benefit greatly from having their captain back in the lineup, but the effort that Malkin has put forth during Crosby's absence isn't just leaving his coach and teammates impressed. It also is keeping Pittsburgh in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh has gotten just eight games of action from Crosby since he suffered a concussion last January. The head injury cost the former MVP the final 41 games of last year's regular season and the first 20 of 2011-12 before a brief return in late November. However, a return of concussion symptoms has him back on the shelf indefinitely.

Yet, despite missing arguably the league's best player with no return date in sight, the Penguins still find themselves tied for fourth overall in the conference with 69 points heading into play on Wednesday.

They have Malkin to thank for that.

The Russian forward was a bit of a question mark himself entering the season as a right knee injury suffered last February caused him to miss the final 29 games of the season. Malkin, though, has showed no ill effects, leading the NHL with 69 points while ranking second in goals with 32. He has posted five goals and 10 points over his last five games and has keyed Pittsburgh's 11-2-1 surge.

Malkin's latest heroics came on Sunday versus Tampa Bay. He scored twice and just missed an empty-net goal in the final seconds of a 4-2 victory and has clicked with linemates Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

Defenseman Kris Letang thinks the time Malkin missed last season has helped ignite a fire under the forward.

"I think sitting down for like almost half of a year last year kind of makes me think that he missed hockey," Kunitz said after Sunday's win. "He missed playing. He came out this season in shape and ready to go and you could see in his eyes he was pretty confident about this year."

Confidence is just one factor sparking Malkin. Being down this road before has probably also helped the 25-year-old take on a bigger role.

"It looks like in 2009 maybe, when Sidney went down and he kind of took over and was playing unbelievable," Letang said of Malkin. "But I think his game is better than it was two years ago. I think he's playing great hockey and it's the first time I've seen him being that dominate."

Letang may have actually been referring to the latter part of the 2007-08 season, when Crosby sat out 21 games with a right ankle sprain suffered in January. Malkin caught fire in Crosby's absence en route to a 106-point season, logging 14 goals and 36 points in the time Crosby missed.

In fact, Malkin exploded with four goals in the first three games without Crosby in the lineup and put forth a jaw-dropping effort with a 10-game point streak in February in which he accounted for 24 points.

Asked to elaborate on what has made Malkin better this season, Letang noted that Malkin is playing with a tougher edge to his game.

"He doesn't have any problem going to the net," Letang said. "You see his goals, he's always driving into the tough area. He's battling on the walls. He's just playing a great game."

Leaders tend to score in big moments and Malkin has been doing that this season as well. His seven game-winning goals through 49 contests already matches his career high set over 67 games in 2009-10 and is tied for fourth- best in the league. That statistic has certainly caught the eye of head coach Dan Bylsma.

"Right now he's playing some dominating hockey and throwing up some unbelievable efforts in games," the coach said. "He's come up with some one- goal games that were in the last five minutes to tie the game and he's come up with some huge efforts."

Malkin's current pace has all but made him the current favorite to lock up his first Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP. But the way he has been able to take over a game at a moment's notice has the Penguins thinking they can be contenders come playoff time.

Crosby or no Crosby.