I don’t mean to put sports hardships in the same stratosphere as human hardships, but I prefer to think I know a thing or two about leadership after all my time spent in a single-parent household. Leadership is a word that can mean many things, in fact, and it doesn’t always mean the things other people see.
There have been doubts about the leadership of Sidney Crosby. They say he hasn’t been clutch enough. They say he’s lost a step. They say he needs to do more.
Sometimes those doubts have been called for. Since the coaching change that rid the Penguins of Mike Johnston and his play-not-to-lose system, their liberated captain has done more to silence those doubts.
Over the course of his career, you would be hard-pressed to find another Penguin who has worked harder on or off the ice to grow as a player and to grow the game. This season, you would be hard-pressed to find another Penguin who has worked harder to rediscover his own game.
Funny thing is, they used to say the same about Evgeni Malkin.
It used to be that whenever Malkin went into overdrive, whatever superlatives came his way were just as easily negated by a vocal minority that wanted him traded the next time he went all face-on-the-milk-carton. But there’s no downplaying the way Malkin has tried to will the Pens back to the playoffs all by himself this season, especially if he succeeds.
Much talk has surrounded the Penguins’ alleged need to find the perfect Robin to Crosby’s Batman. Chris Kunitz used to be it. David Perron wasn’t it. Patric Hornqvist, if his execution more frequently matched his tenacity, could be it. Who’s to say Malkin hasn’t been Robin all along? For that matter, who’s to say Robin hasn’t turned into Nightwing?
This may not be as fun a team to watch as it once was, but it’s still fun to watch Malkin try to take over a game. Few in the league, not just in Pittsburgh, seem as willing or as able to do that as he this season. He doesn’t need the perfect linemate. Malkin, as he demonstrated Saturday, will thrive on his own terms.
It’s easy to say a team as consistently inconsistent as the ’15-’16 Penguins doesn’t have a clear MVP, at least one not named Marc-Andre Fleury. But through all the unnerving, Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies of their offense, Geno has done the most to rise above any resignation to mediocrity.
In case you forgot what a superstar is supposed to look like when his team is playing for its season, but also playing like feces, take a look at this:
That’s what leadership looks like.
If you want to know what leadership sounds like, stick a microphone in his face in the middle of a losing streak, or even after just one sensationally ugly defeat.
After Malkin held that mirror under the collective nose of his underachieving teammates, he capped off a four-point night against Minnesota by delivering this beauty:
Leadership should always be by example. Well done is always better than well said, and there’s always room in the locker room for the strong, comparatively silent types who lead strictly by example. That’s where Crosby, historically, is supposed to come in and be the yin to Malkin’s yang.
On multiple levels, the Pens needed Crosby to toy with the Flyers just like old times when the Broad Streeters came to CONSOL Energy Center last Thursday, and without anything more than his usual mild-mannered sound bites preceding, he did. Still, when that aforementioned feces has hit the fan, the Pens have sorely needed someone in that room to step up and pipe up.
That locker room was refreshingly salty after the Malkin-led comeback over the Canucks. While this team is not currently in a position to care about winning pretty versus winning ugly, it must do a better job of winning in ways that are sustainable if it wishes not to get embarrassed in April.
Guess who was among the first to admit it (h/t Seth Rorabaugh/Empty Netters, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
“We talked before [the] game about slow starts, [like the] last game. But it’s the same start tonight. I don’t know what was going on but I think we were ready before [the] game. After [the] first, it was 2-0 again. It’s not good for us. We need to change a little bit and play better [in the] first period. It’s very important because if we want to play in the playoffs, it’s not right because playoffs [are a] little bit different game. We can’t score five goals every game. We need to play 60 minutes.”
Even with 21 points in 19 games under Mike Sullivan, and even with an NHL-best seven power play points in January entering Tuesday, he knows he’s not above such reproach, either.
He knows he needs to curtail turnovers like the one he committed that led to a Vancouver goal and compounded that deficit.
He knows he needs to eliminate the kind of penalties that have cost his team just as dearly, like the one he took in overtime in Carolina a couple weeks ago.
He knows he needs to do it again, and again, and again…and he will.
Or so we hope.
Take Sunday’s postponement as a blessing, giving Malkin and the Pens time to let those lessons sink in, and above all, time to rest up for New Jersey. Beating a team on the road that, realistically, you’re not going to pass is not as important as beating a team at home that you have to pass. In the meantime, Pens fans, be grateful for what you still have, and be careful what you wish for.
It used to be that social media GMs regularly examined the possibility the Penguins would be a better team without Evgeni Malkin. Now they’re not so sure anymore.
It used to be that the Penguins’ admission into the postseason was a foregone conclusion. Now, as they try to avert disaster, Evgeni Malkin says they’ll make it.
Now, considering the source, is not the time to disagree.