Malkin praised by teammates prior to 1,000th NHL game with Penguins

CRANBERRY, Pa. — Evgeni Malkin rarely speaks publicly.

The Pittsburgh Penguins center has a boisterous personality, often cracking jokes during practice. But after, Malkin likes to leave for the locker room, take off his gear and go about his day.

For that reason, it almost seemed appropriate his teammates celebrated on his behalf, as Malkin prepares to play his 1,000th NHL game for the Penguins against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday (7 pm ET; SN, NBCSCH, ATTSN-PT, ESPN+, SN NOW).

“It’s an awesome achievement,” center Sidney Crosby said. “Given what he’s gone through to get to it too, a lot of guys might not even be playing at this point, having to have played through what he has. So I think it’s an achievement in itself, but especially what he’s had to go through to get there.”

The second overall pick of the 2004 NHL Draft, Malkin will join Crosby, who has played 1,126 games following a 3-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, as the only players to reach 1,000 games for Pittsburgh. Defenseman Kris Letang has played 958 games, and could reach 1,000 later this season.

Each of those three has passed Mario Lemieux, the previous Penguins record-holder at 915 games.

“‘Geno’ is a real competitive athlete,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think, sometimes, his competitive spirit may fly under the radar a little bit. But he’s a generational talent in his own right. He’s been such a big part of our ability to win Stanley Cups early in my tenure here.

“So the fact that he’s approaching this milestone is just a credit to his dedication to the game, his passion to the sport, his willingness to put in the work and just his overall talent level. He’s an elite player.”

After extending his point streak to six games with an assist against the Jets, Malkin is third in Penguins history with 1,165 points, 451 goals and 732 assists. Lemieux (1,723; 690, 1,033) and Crosby (1,432; 526, 906) are first and second, respectively.

Malkin has won the Stanley Cup three times (2009, 2016 and 2017), winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2009. He won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 2012 and the Art Ross Trophy as the League leader in points in 2009 and 2012.

“I’ve always been a big fan of his,” forward Rickard Rakell said. “If I’m thinking of a hockey player that looks like he has so much fun when he plays, I think about him. It really looks like he’s always trying to beat his guy out there. Emotional, do whatever it takes.”

That emotion can be intimidating. Just ask forward Jake Guentzel.

“Scared,” Guentzel said of how he felt around Malkin as a rookie in 2017. “My first game was with him and Phil [Kessel]. That was a pretty nerve-racking game. You just realize how good of a player he is.”

Malkin continues to produce at 36 years old. He is second on Pittsburgh with 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 18 games, behind Crosby’s 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists).

But Malkin getting to 1,000 games was never guaranteed. In February 2011 he had surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. Malkin was held out until Jan. 11 last season after having surgery on the same knee on June 4.

Even if Malkin did reach 1,000, it wasn’t a certainty he’d do it with the Penguins. He could have been an unrestricted free agent this past offseason, but instead agreed to a four-year, $24.4 million contract ($6.1 average annual value) on July 13.

The locker room would have been different without Malkin, Crosby said. For 17 seasons, Malkin has sat a few stalls to Crosby’s right.

Crosby said he’s glad that dynamic won’t change anytime soon.

“It means a lot. We’re both competitive,” Crosby said. “We both came into the League with high expectations, kind of understood our responsibility at a young age. I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to play with him all these years and share so many things with him. Not only that, but to see him over the years make some of the plays that he’s made and be part of some of those moments has been pretty special. It’s not something that everyone gets the opportunity to do.

“So when I just think about that and the amount of games that he’s played, and what he’s been through, it’s impressive what’s he’s done regardless. But with having to have two ACL repairs and playing at the level that he’s still playing at, I can’t think of many guys who would be able to do what he’s done.”

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