PITTSBURGH -- Whenever we think of Evgeni Malkin, we think of two things.
First, the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, when he single-handedly demolished the Carolina Hurricanes in a four-game sweep en route to the Pittsburgh Penguins' first Cup championship since 1992 and, specifically, early in the series when he fed himself the puck off an offensive-zone draw and beat Cam Ward with a nasty backhand.
Second, we remember the day that same postseason when the Penguins' superlative public-relations staffer Jennifer Bullano literally chased Malkin through the locker room at the team's practice facility, trying to make him stop and talk to the media, but Malkin proved to be too elusive and escaped.
At the time, one may have wondered whether Malkin was trying to outrun his destiny, to flee from his own future. At that point in time, the lanky center might well have been the best hockey player on the planet.
After winning the NHL scoring title with 113 points, he piled up 36 postseason points en route to a well-earned Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Malkin blossomed during that season, stepping into the breach when captain Sidney Crosby missed significant time with a high ankle sprain. Against significant skepticism, Malkin proved he could elevate his game, could be a go-to guy, that he was the real deal.
And then, well, ask Penguins GM Ray Shero what happened to Malkin over the past few seasons and there is a pause.
Of course, there was the knee injury that cost Malkin the last half of last season. But before that, there was a dramatic drop-off in Malkin's production. The second overall pick in the 2004 draft went from 113 points in 2008-09 to 77 the next season. He was on about the same pace last season with 37 points in 43 games.
It wasn't conditioning. But there was definitely something. Is it enough to simply say stuff happens? Maybe. It will certainly be enough of an explanation provided Malkin returns to form this season.
"I'm looking at a bounce-back year from him because he's got something to prove," Shero told ESPN.com. "He took responsibility [in the past]. He likes that. He's a leader in the way he plays. He needs to get back to that level."
Malkin said his knee is about 90 percent and was on the ice Saturday for the team's first on-ice session of training camp, looking very much like a man on a mission playing with newcomer Steve Sullivan and Tyler Kennedy.
There have been subtle changes in Malkin's demeanor off the ice. He no longer flees, but takes a regular turn meeting with the media. And those around the team suggest he is a highly motivated player determined to put the past two seasons behind him.
"It's not pressure for me. Maybe because my English is not good, [I] am not reading lots of [newspapers], but not pressure," Malkin told ESPN.com Saturday. "Yeah, I [was] not great last season, but had a couple of injuries, big problem [to] play 100 percent hockey. New season coming and [I want to] just try and play my game and help the team to win.
"Of course, every player wants to play 100 percent and play [his] best game, but it's hockey. Some days you play good, some days not as good, but I'm not worried about this. I'm just focused on my game."
With so much attention focused on Crosby, Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Vancouver's Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who each won a scoring title the past two seasons, Malkin's brief period of decline has been in some ways overlooked, at least externally.
But ask Penguins coach Dan Bylsma about the expectations for Malkin this season and he likewise talks about a player with a lot to prove.
"Whenever you talk to Geno, whenever you get a chance to talk about goals and what he wants, it always comes, every conversation, comes to the Stanley Cup and winning Stanley Cups, winning multiple Stanley Cups," Bylsma said. "It will always go there if you sit down and talk with him. I think he's looking to get back, not for points and not for individual awards or scoring titles; he wants to get back and help this team be a good hockey team and win a Stanley Cup, another Stanley Cup.
"I think that's his mindset. I think that was his mindset at the end of last year, trying to get back for the playoffs if he could."
With Crosby's availability still unknown, the table is set for Malkin to re-establish himself as more than a player who thrived in Crosby's shadow. As Shero pointed out, Malkin has time on his side (he just turned 25 this past summer).
He no longer runs away when he's asked to talk to the media; now we'll find out if he's able to chart a course back to the top of the game.