Malkin heads the Pen's hot streak

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL with 58 points. (credit: Courtesy of Wooble via Flickr) Penguins center Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL with 58 points. (credit: Courtesy of Wooble via Flickr)

With the All-Star weekend in the rear-view mirror, the Pittsburgh Penguins come back to their regular season with a seven-game winning streak. Before this streak, the Penguins had a six-game losing streak, which left fans groveling for the return of captain Sidney Crosby, who is on the disabled list with a concussion. For avid followers, the leader of the Penguins’ surge is by no means a mystery. Center and alternate captain Evgeni Malkin’s dominance on the ice has the Penguins playing their best hockey of the 2011–12 season.

Malkin, being a four-time All-Star and former NHL Rookie of the Year, is not surprising anybody with his excellent play. The expectations for Malkin are extremely high, especially while Crosby is still on the disabled list. For the Penguins to succeed without Crosby, Malkin has to lead this team.

Throughout this seven-game streak of victories — including big wins against the Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, and New York Rangers — Malkin has been in the center of the offense. He scored a goal in all but one of the seven games, scoring in the shootout of the last game. During this streak, he is averaging 1.87 points and 1.29 goals per game.

Even with the Penguins’ success guided by Malkin, no one would ever question Crosby’s position as the captain and leader of the team — until now. Crosby is currently seeing a doctor in California to rehabilitate from his recurring concussions, while Malkin has the Penguins putting together an unbelievable string of wins. Maybe it is time to take the captain title away from Crosby and let Malkin wear the “C” on his jersey.

Before Penguins fans have a tantrum, let me provide some clarification. I know how much Crosby means to the team and to Pittsburgh. I know, when healthy, that Crosby is the best player in the NHL. However, the caveat in his greatness is his health. In just seven seasons, Crosby has missed 120 games, primarily due to concussions. It doesn’t matter how dominant a player he is if he isn’t on the ice.

When Crosby is playing, he makes the Penguins better — I am not disputing that. But given the state of the team, Crosby’s health, and Malkin’s play, why not make Malkin the captain? It is just a title, but Malkin has earned that title. Team owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, as well as head coach Dan Bylsma, hold the right to give captaincy back to Crosby if they desire, but while he is rehabilitating on the West Coast, they should pay Malkin his dues.

I understand that the captain’s job includes speaking to the referees, an aspect that the Russian-born Malkin might struggle with. This is a valid concern, but the Penguins have alternate captains. Malkin is the point leader this season, even after missing seven games this season. He is leading the Penguins’ rise to the top in the Eastern Conference. They now find themselves ranked fifth, after hovering in and out of the playoff picture.

I pondered the prospects of Bylsma and the owners letting Crosby leave or trading him to open up cap space, but the NHL is as much a business as it is a competition. His popularity in Pittsburgh is unmatched by any other hockey player, so perhaps I should put a halt to my thoughts of demoting Crosby. If he comes back with another hockey team, reemerges as the greatest player in the game today, and stays healthy, I will have to bite my tongue — so hard, that I would bite it off.

For now, regardless of how strong the love for Crosby is in this city, the Penguins should stick with a winning strategy: Put the “C” on Malkin’s chest.