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‘I always think about Cups’ - Rejuvenated Malkin leads Pens

Relive the best saves from the 2019-20 NHL season before the league suspended play, from Carter Hart's glove stop to Henrik Lundqvist's stick save.

PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin is already thinking about the future, the one where the hockey star in the family isn’t the four-time All-Star forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins but his 4-year-old son, Nikita.

The younger Malkin certainly seems to be on his way. The elder Malkin posted a picture on Instagram this week with Nikita decked out in full Penguins gear. Spending an extended amount of time with Nikita during the three-month pause to the NHL season created by the COVID-19 pandemic gave Malkin an appreciation for the energy it takes to wrangle a preschooler.

“He spends so much energy every day,” Malkin said Tuesday.

Like father, like son.

While many of his teammates are still trying to find their footing during training camp as they prepare for a playoff meeting with Montreal early next month, the 33-year-old Malkin is already at full speed.

“You guys can see it when you watch in practice every day,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “The level of intensity ... it’s contagious throughout our team. All of our leaders have brought that ... but Geno has set the standard as far as bringing his work ethic to the rink every day.”

Pittsburgh has needed it, particularly with captain Sidney Crosby currently out due to an undisclosed injury. The three-time MVP left an intrasquad scrimmage over the weekend. He missed practice Sunday and sat out a scrimmage on Monday. Sullivan, citing the NHL’s privacy policy, has declined to offer any details on Crosby’s status, making Malkin’s energetic play all the more valuable.

Malkin helped carry the Penguins during Crosby’s extended absence last fall following surgery to repair a sports hernia and was leading the team in points (74) by a wide margin when the league shut down in mid-March. He spent most of the “pause” in Miami with his wife and family, trying to stick to his summer workout regiment while adding more inline skating to the mix with the local ice rinks shut down.

Yes, he’s plenty fresh following the layoff. Yet there is another layer of urgency that’s helped Malkin quickly re-engage. Sure, the pursuit of a fourth Stanley Cup is ever-present in his mind. There’s also an appreciation for the game that might have gotten lost in recent years. He can’t remember the last time he went so long without playing. It wasn’t fun.

“I always think about Cups for sure but I’m glad to back for ice,” Malkin said. “It’s my ... it’s what I do all my life. It’s a new reality right now it’s not easy for everyone and we understand how important this year for each player. Like, we try (to) do everything back and play playoffs. It doesn’t matter. No fans, it’s hard but it’s still like, we love the game.”

Malkin believes the Penguins are taking the right steps in ramping up the intensity to get ready for what awaits in Toronto next month. The first scrimmage was a sloppy 7-0 domination by one side in which Pittsburgh starting goaltender Matt Murray struggled. He was better on Monday, and so was the intensity.

“We played hard, we try to play like real game, couple hits, blocking shots,” Malkin said. “You know practice is not real game but we try to be close. I like what I see.”

Maybe, but time is running out. At least reinforcements are on the way. Nine players who had been held out due to health protocols were cleared to return on Monday. Sullivan held the group out of the scrimmage, preferring to give them a chance to get some practice reps in before going all out. Their return, a group that includes veteran forward Patric Hornqvist, led the team to add a scrimmage next Saturday. The team leaves for Canada the following day.

“It’s what we think is best for the players and what the team needs,” Sullivan said.