You hear the same thing from every hockey TV talking head, from any objective fan, and from opposition coaches like Guy Boucher. There is one NHL player right now who is head and shoulders above everyone else, who skates on an elevated plane reserved for the immortals. And Evgeni Malkin deserves all of the accolades. With 69 points in 49 games, Geno averages 1.41 points per game. The next guy in line is Claude Giroux with 62 points in 52 games. But Malkin's dominance would be just as apparent if he were playing in a league where no one keeps stats. His re-emergence as a contender for "best player in the world" status calls to mind what Ken Dryden once said about Mario Lemieux: "Lemieux looks different. Lemieux looks dominant." That's Malkin right now. He has 17 goals in his last 17 games, and many of them have been of the jaw-dropping variety. Have you ever seen a black rhinoceros thunder across an open prairie? Have you ever watched a killer whale devour a walrus? We're talking about a force of nature here.
Of course, all this is happening as the Penguins, the league, and its fans, read the daily reports on Sidney Crosby, learn that he's skating and is no closer to a return, and don't think much about Crosby at all beyond that. It's not surprising, really. That long losing streak is ancient history. The top line of Malkin, Neal, and Kunitz has been unstoppable, the team is relatively healthy, and we're all tired of the endless speculation and uncertainty surrounding Crosby. Maybe he'll be back, we tell ourselves, but maybe he won't. Best not to dwell on what we're missing. Better to enjoy the spectacle of Malkin prancing around the offensive zone like a gazelle and consider: maybe Malkin's just better. Better than Giroux, Datsyuk, or the Sedins. Better than Crosby. As close to unstoppable as anyone in the league. On a level with any forward that's ever played. With the way Geno's going right now, whatever happens with Sid, even if he does manage to come back, we can't break up that top line.
Read on after the jump...
It's so easy to do draw that facile conclusion, isn't it? What Malkin is doing right now is intoxicating, and if you combine it with Crosby's often agonizing and extended absence, you might be looking for any excuse to forget. Too bad. Time for a GTOG history lesson. The year is 2008. Sidney Crosby goes down with a high ankle sprain. Evgeni Malkin rises to the challenge of taking over as the undisputed number one offensive threat for the Pens, piling up 106 points and 1.29 ppg and establishing himself as one of the top 5 forwards in hockey. Then came the encore: 113 points, 1.38 ppg, an Art Ross, a Conn Smythe, and some open, valid discussion: maybe he's better.
And then? Then Geno fell to earth, and Sidney Crosby turned himself into a 51-goal-scorer. In 2010-11, the pre-concussion Sid was even better. Much, much better. 66 points in 41 games, for a 1.61 ppg average. With Chris Kunitz and a hard-working gentleman named Pascal who has a career average of .2 ppg on his wings. To be clear, Sidney Crosby was on pace for 65 goals with Pascal Dupuis riding shotgun. Geno might agree to part with Chris Kunitz in the interest of giving a guy with Crosby's pedigree a legitimate top 6 winger.
Listen, maybe Malkin is better. We really don't care. They both play for the Penguins. We would just advise against falling victim to the Rule of Recency, where Malkin's play of late somehow diminishes Crosby's greatness, which we like to think is just for a bit longer lying dormant, waiting to be rediscovered. Never forget.
Incidentally, there actually is one guy who averages more points-per-game this season than Evgeni Malkin.