Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Every once in a while, all the elements just come together and something previously ignored, underestimated, or less-than-appreciated is universally embraced, beloved, and accepted as gospel. For example, Behind the Music, Laguna Beach, The O.C., and The Sopranos all came together, at a sad and nostalgic time in American history, to remind us that Journey is a band that deserves your respect and love. Journey is no longer a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed at dive bars and frat parties. Journey is indisputably awesome. It's okay to cry over "Open Arms," it's perfectly acceptable to rock out to "Separate Ways," and it's totally cool to get pumped to "Don't Stop Believing." Now, the favors seem to be converging upon Pittsburgh Penguin Evgeni Malkin in the same way. Let's call him, EvJourney Malkin. For Malkin, judging by the Derek Jeter-level articles of worship in the mainstream media and our own SportSquee polls on the subject, seems to be the most universally beloved character in hockey right now. As universally beloved as one could be among hockey fans, that is. Does he deserve it? Totes! We like to think that we were way ahead of the curve of Malkin worship. Who else has coined a facial condition after him? But since Malkin has garnered no mentions on popular teen television, high-minded mafia dramas, nor dramatically-narrated rockumentaries, we have to wonder what the elements were that brought us all around to the consensus that Evgeni Malkin is the bee's knees. Here is our analysis.
He's not Cindy Crosby
We here at SportSquee worship Cindy Crosby the Human and everything he touches. However, we accept, if not understand, that many people don't. But there is a certain polish, sanitization almost, to Crosby that seems to turn people off. Malkin, however, is as unpolished as a freshly mined diamond. Crosby is cute, with glossy hair and creamy skin, and software full of tempered sound bites. Malkin is goofy-looking, with a messy mop and jank teeth, and absolutely no grasp of the English language. One can argue that Malkin was as hyped up as Crosby was on his arrival, but then, no one was as hyped up as Cindy Crosby (::cough::Ovechkin::cough). As hyped up as he was, by the time Malkin came on the scene, the NHL already had a savior. And that savior was on Malkin's team. All Malkin had to do was keep up and he was delivering. All Crosby had to do was save hockey. Just saying. But as Oscar to Crosby's Felix, Will to Crosby's Carlton, Hansel to Crosby's Zoolander, Malkin has given hockey fans a scruffy alternate to the NHL's smooth superstar.
He doesn't speak English
According to voters of SportSquee's poll, Malkin's refusal to learn English was chosen as his best characteristic. This is interesting. Because Malkin can't speak English, we aren't forced to swallow banal post-game interviews in which he touts a team-first attitude and promises to give 110%. And because he's doesn't speak English, he isn't Jeremy Roenick or Sean Avery. For all we know, he's called Marty Brodeur "Fatty" hundreds of times, but in Russian it just sounds like he's ordering vodka. Any time Malkin is cornered into an interview, he has a translator with him. And for all we know, frequent mouthpiece Sergei Gonchar is just making Malkin's answers up. Malkin could totally be like, "Fuck you, Chris Simpson. Why you gotta wear suede jackets all the time?" And Gonchar is like, "He says we play a team game and he always gives 110%." Hey, Malkin may have an excellent handle on the English language (which is what I suspect), and this is just a ruse to keep the press at arm's length. If so, Malkin is a damn genius. Also, and I may be alone in this, but Malkin's choice not to learn English (which I still doubt) kind of makes him seem... cool. EvJourney Malkin doesn't play by your rules, NHL. Oh, he's going to learn a language, all right. But it's going to be Portuguese. Yeah, that's right. He wants to go to Brazil and learn capoeira. Try and stop him. In all seriousness, it lends a certain mysterious, rebellious air to someone who looks like a doof.
In Gary Bettman's new NHL, every player must receive an obligatory comparison to Alex Ovechkin and Cindy Crosby. But if you really think about it, Malkin's skill set marries the best of Ovechkin's and Crosby's. By now, anyone who knows anything about hockey knows that Ovechkin and Crosby should never be compared as players since each brings a different dish to the Thanksgiving table. But you can easily compare Malkin to either because his game includes many of the things that make the other two special. Like Ovechkin, Malkin is speedy enough to burst ahead of traffic and he has a good enough and hard enough shot to snipe. When Crosby is in the game, Malkin has the freedom to play more of a speedy power forward/Ovechkin game. Now, unlike Ovechkin, who seeks out/initiates contact and is a fearsome hitter, Malkin absorbs hits as if they are stiff breezes. This is more like Crosby, who can take a licking and still stay on his feet and the puck. Malkin's strength on the puck and ability to dish borrow from Crosby's best attributes. And when Crosby was out we saw that Malkin was more than comfortable taking over Crosby's role of composer of the game (more on that in a moment). Basically, Malkin covers all of the bases. If you like a speedy, snipe-y game, he's got it. If you like it physical and grind-y, he's got that, too. If you like cerebral control of the game's tempo, he can kind of pitch in a little of that as well. Malkin's skill is the hockey equivalent of Neapolitan ice cream.
The Second Half of This Season
We all recognized that Malkin was a great talent as soon as he came into the league. But I think we can agree that he had a bit of a coasting tendency going. He had bursts of electricity and then took a few shifts off. But once Crosby's ankle troubles knocked him out of the game, Malkin just flat-out took over. This prompted some (meaning me) to wonder if Malkin was like Jaromir Jagr, whose game seems to rise to great heights when he is "the man" and can slip into Claude Rains territory when his team has other talent to depend on. But Malkin had a fantastic first two rounds of the playoffs (he was good against the Flyers, but not as dogged as he was against the Sens and Rangers) with the Kid and John Wayne Hossa very much in the game. Now, Malkin's Crosby-less performance inspired some to take it as confirmation that Crosby isn't all that. This is a lie of course, as Cindy Crosby is all that and a canister of Pringles. But it proved that Malkin belongs in the conversation when we talk about the best players in the NHL.
No, we haven't had much opportunity to see Malkin's personality. As much "personality" as we're allowed to see from any professional hockey player these days. But watch him celebrate a goal. Every time Geno puts the puck in the net, it's like the very first time he's ever scored. And yet, it doesn't come off as obnoxious. He grins and throws himself against the glass, where fans are beating enthusiastically, sometimes he punches the glass, too, in celebratory solidarity. It's like the reaction just explodes from within. It's endearing. Also, the midnight escape to America proved a certain strength of character. Dude, he defied the Russian mafia! Did you see Eastern Promises? Those guys are totally serious. And when he lived in Russia, he owned a theme restaurant. The theme? Russian prison. That's...creative. And batshit. But you all know you'd eat prison gruel if it was approved by EvJourney Malkin, just admit it already.
When the camera lingers on Geno, sitting on the bench, pondering the scoreboard, or watching the referee skate by, his Malkinface is is full, glorious effect. Think about the great game faces in the NHL. Dion Phaneuf looks outrageously pissed. Rod Brind'Amour looks like he's using the Jedi Force on the puck. Joe Sakic looks like he's about to seduce the puck away from the opponent. Derian Hatcher looks like he's going to eat a baby. But Malkin just looks like he's trying to figure out if he remembered to wear a cup. Or thinking about a bear on a unicycle. Or wondering why Spongebob Squarepants lives in a pineapple of all things. We know he's a focused athlete. But his perpetually confused face is my top reason for adoring him.