KAZAN, Russia – Of all the players to return to Europe over the past week, few have attracted as much attention as Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Yevgeni Malkin.
The forward, Russia’s star man at the last IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, was among the first to agree a deal in the KHL and quickly traded Pittsburgh Penguins for his home-town club.
The South Ural city now hosts something of an NHL reunion, with Malkin joined by Sergei Gonchar and Nikolai Kulyomin – while experienced North American coach Paul Maurice had already persuaded another Pittsburgh man, Cal O’Reilly, to swap one steel city for another.
Not surprisingly, then, Malkin’s first games in Magnitogorsk colors dominated the headlines – both in Russian and international media. Yet, while fellow NHL star Alexander Ovechkin finds himself slotting into a winning team at Dynamo Moscow, Metallurg has made a stuttering start to the season as Maurice’s reshuffled – and substantially younger – roster takes time to find the right blend.
But, while hopes for an immediate upturn in form have been hit by two defeats – both after ties in regulation time – the level of excitement Malkin has brought to the organization is already clearly visible.
Take the scenes in Kazan, where the long-running rivalry between Magnitka and Ak Bars gained new bite with the new NHL arrivals. The home side enjoyed its first sell-out of the season, with queues at the ticket offices long before the puck was dropped.
Malkin took to the ice to a generous round of applause – and then found himself the target of good-natured ribbing whenever things went against him for the rest of the evening.
In particular, every time he lost out in a duel with popular veteran D-man Ilya Nikulin, the home crowd roared its approval, while his two-minute penalty midway through the final period appeased fans who had earlier been angered at what they saw as lenient officiating when Malkin and Nikulin clashed forcefully moments earlier.
But the greatest cheers – combining relief and approval – came in the shoot-out. Facing Konstantin Barulin, Malkin drifted to the right, cut sharply back across the face of goal to create a shooting angle, pulled the trigger and... fired wide of the target. Alexei Morozov’s successful conversation at the other end proved decisive.
The man himself admits it’s been tough to adapt quickly to his homecoming. “I’m still waiting for my first KHL goal, but there’s no need to panic,” Malkin said in Kazan. “I’m still picking up my form. The goals will come. At the moment I’m maybe 70 per cent match fit. There’s been no time for warm-up games, plus we’re still getting used to a new line-up.”
Meanwhile he made his first home appearance against Lev Prague on Thursday where he scored his first and so far only goal while having seven points in five games.
It would be unfair to blame Malkin for Magnitka’s current struggles, however. He has provided assists on his team’s equalizing goals in the first to games: in Ufa that came 20 seconds before the siren to snatch a 3-3 tie before Sergei Zinoviev completed his hat-trick in overtime to grab the bonus point.
In Kazan, it was a rare moment of freedom to attack the puck in the slot that enable Malkin to force Gonchar’s blue-liner back in to play for Justin Hodgman to touch home the 1-1 goal. Since then Metallurg is 3-0 and Malkin gave three assists each in the 7-2 win at Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and the 6-1 victory over Lev Prague. On Saturday Magnitka edged Slovan Bratislava, 3-2.
Meanwhile, for opponents, forewarned of Metallurg’s new talisman, tactics have been prepared in advance. Valeri Belov, Ak Bars’ coach, reminded journalists that in every game he prepares for the opposition. “Of course we thought about Malkin. His involvement raised the whole status of today’s game,” he smiled.
And, according to Maurice, the hype around Malkin and his colleagues has had a knock-on effect as opponents prepare to face Magnitogorsk. “We saw in the last game that the other team was excited to play against these players,” Maurice said. “Playing against guys like this, every team knows that if they give them time and space they will be difficult to handle.”
As for the current level of Russian hockey in the KHL era, Malkin was cautiously complimentary.
“You can’t compare different teams, and it’s not really important whether the guys are from the NHL or anywhere else,” he said. “These are all real players. Looks at the Ak Bars roster: you’ve got Ilya Nikulin, Alexei Morozov, Alexei Tereshenko and Danis Zaripov – they’ve all won the World Championship and so has Kostya [Konstantin] Barulin. Of course it’s hard to play against a team at that level.”
Malkin also spoke warmly of his new home following his opening game in Ufa, telling R-Sport: “It’s obvious that this league is growing every season, and if the lock-out continues things will get very interesting here.”
Meanwhile, as discussion continues back in the NHL about how to resolve the current deadlock between players and management, Maurice is hopeful of a swift resolution – even if it means losing his talented new acquisitions.
“Nobody really wins in this situation,” he said. “Of course it’s good for the KHL to see players coming back and playing here, but it’s better for everyone when all the leagues are in action.”
That said, Maurice would recommend the Russian experience to any North American players considering their options – and reports suggest that several big names including Blackhawks Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were in talks with various KHL organizations.
“My experience here has been great,” he said. “It’s a different game here, and there are opportunities for players to expand their game and learn to do more. There’s more time on the puck.”