The Pittsburgh Penguins proved they were for real last season, but the 2008 Stanley Cup Final proved Evgeni Malkin was only human.

After amassing 47 goals and 106 points in the 2007-08 regular season, Malkin was held scoreless in the first four games of the 2008 Cup Final, as the Penguins fell to a 3-1 deficit in games. When he finally scored his only goal of the series in Game 6, it was too late for the Penguins to comeback against the Ford-tough Red Wings, who hoisted their fourth Cup since 1997.

To traditional hockey fans, it was just another shining example of a Russian superstar fading in the spotlight; but, to the Penguins and Malkin, it was simply a lesson learned.

Malkin came back this season knowing that he had something to prove, not only about himself, but about his country. He led the entire NHL with 113 points, but didn't win the MVP. That prize went, deservedly so, to his fellow countryman, Alexander Ovechkin, who beat out Finalists Malkin and another Russian, Pavel Datsyuk from Detroit, for the Hart Trophy (MVP), after scoring 110 points and a league-leading 56 goals (ten more than any other player).

"Ovi" and Malkin are already two of the best players in the league, and, at ages 23 and 22 (respectively), it can only be speculated, just how much Russian they'll write in the NHL History books. Already, they have redefined "Russian hockey player" in the dictionary. Russians (in comparison to North Americans) have always been stereotypically fast skaters that avoid contact at all costs and refuse to drop the gloves when the situation arises. They also have the reputation of playing small in big games.

While both players live up to the skating stereotype, Ovechkin has always shown that he's a unique breed, going as far as to engage, another Penguin and superstar, Sidney Crosby, earlier this season, and never letting anyone skate free when he's sees the opportunity to knock him down.

Malkin has been viewed differently; for the most part due to his debacle last year, when he became less visible than Casper the Ghost during the Stanley Cup Final. Not only didn't he score enough, he didn't even make his presence felt during that Final.

This year, Malkin entered the Stanley Cup with one more year of experience, but took far bigger strides in terms of his presence.

Pittsburgh was stymied in Detroit, but Malkin still weighed in on the only two goals the team scored in the first two games, scoring one and assisting on the other. However, leaving Detroit with two losses was far from a success, and, at the end of Game 2, Malkin showed his true feelings when he dropped the gloves with Detroit's top center, Henrik Zetterberg, during a late-game skirmish.

Malkin was assessed an instigator penalty, a fighting major, and a misconduct penalty, getting kicked out of the game in the process. In other sports, flagrant fouls (basketball) or unnecessary roughness (football) penalties are usually deplorable, but that's not the way in hockey. On the ice, in the middle of a series, this is a way of showing that you intend to keeping battling, and this is the message Malkin sent by going superstar-to-superstar with Zetterberg.

The NHL has threatened suspensions for "Message Sending" in the playoffs, and, in fact, Malkin's misconduct carried with it an automatic one-game suspension. However, the NHL fairly rescinded the suspension and allowed him to play in Game 3. In this case, it would have been ludicrous to suspend one of the league's top players for such an altercation. (Sure, it seems biased to say a lesser player could have been suspended, however, if a lesser player had gotten in an altercation with Zetterberg it could have been viewed as a shot at trying to injure the Detroit star.) In this instance, this was Malkin's way of stepping up to lead his team and showing by example that the Penguins planned on turning the series around. Last year, he never would have exuded this type of leadership.

In Game 3, the Pens followed Malkin's lead cracking a 2-2 tie with a goal midway through the third period, with an assist from Malkin, and finishing an empty netter to cap a 4-2 win. He had three points (all assists) in the game, which was the same amount of points he put up last season in the entire series.

It was much of the same in Game 4, the Russian jump started Pittsburgh just 2:39 into the game with his second goal of the series. Then, broke a 2-2 tie midway through the second when he blocked a shot by Detroit's Brad Stuart and took the puck the length of the ice on a 2-on-1 before feeding Sidney Crosby for the eventual game-winning goal.

The series heads back to Detroit Saturday night all balanced out. Detroit won two 3-1 games on its ice; Pittsburgh won two 4-2 games on its ice, but, despite the symmetry, the talk has revolved around the Russians: Malkin, whose increased level of play has tilted the ice in the Penguins favor; and, Detroit's Datsyuk, who plans to play in Game 5 after nursing a foot injury to start the series, and whose return could tilt the ice back in the Red Wings favor.

Ultimately, in what has been a seesaw of a series, the team that ends up on top will likely be led by whichever Hart Trophy Finalist can out duel his countryman, which means the weight of Lord Stanley's Cup is on your shoulders, Mother Russia!

--Originally posed on the --

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