Evgeni Malkin and Jakub Voracek share some qualities, and one is that they share the spotlight on their respective teams with superstar captains. Both Malkin and Voracek are among the league leaders in scoring, a rite of passage for Malkin in his ninth season. But it's a new thing for Voracek, as the Flyers' star winger is 3 years younger than Malkin and has emerged with a career season.
Paths to stardom: Malkin was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft and would have been the top pick in most years, but he had to share billing with Russian colleague Alex Ovechkin that year. Malkin stayed in Russia for one more season after the 2004-05 lockout before taking the NHL by storm in 2006-07 at age 20 with 85 points (33 goals, 52 assists), and he continues to be one of the league's truly elite offensive difference-makers. In his first decade in the league, Malkin has picked up a Hart Trophy as MVP, two Art Ross Trophies as the scoring champion, a Ted Lindsay Award as the most outstanding player voted on by his peers and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. In other words, he's lived up to billing from the day he was drafted.
Voracek took a more common path, drafted seventh overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2007 draft and needing time to build up strength and confidence as an emerging star. As a 19-year-old in his rookie season of 2008-09, he put up 38 points (nine goals, 29 assists) in 80 games, and he followed with similar seasons of between 46 and 50 points from 2009-10 through 2011-12. Along the way, he was traded to the Flyers after the 2011 season, and during the lockout season of 2012-13 came the first real sense that Voracek could take his game to the next level, as the Czech winger put up 46 points (22-24) in 48 games. He followed that up with a respectable 62 points (23-39) in 82 games last season before exploding into a top-five NHL offensive player this year.
"He's a guy I didn't know a whole lot about, having played in Vancouver for a while, and then when I came out here last year, he was clearly a good player and playing with Claude Giroux, they had some chemistry," Schneider told ESPN.com this week. "But it seems like this year, he's almost slowed the game down a little bit and made it easier for himself. When he carries the puck into the zone, he lays up and he's able to find trailers and second and third guys; or I've seen him also take the puck hard to the net, so he's got a few options there. It seems to me like he's expanded his repertoire of moves coming into the zone, which makes him harder to defend one-on-one or even two-on-two. He and Giroux have that chemistry where they can seemingly create something out of nothing."
So it's been a more traditional path to stardom for Voracek -- he didn't shoot out of the gate like Malkin did, but it does make you wonder now about his going seventh in the 2007 draft, right? Patrick Kane went first overall that year, certainly the right call, but was then followed by James van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris, Thomas Hickey, Karl Alzner and Sam Gagner before Voracek was selected.
The similarities: Voracek and Malkin took different roads to stardom but still have similarities.
"The biggest thing I see from both of them is how strong physically they are," former NHL goalie Martin Biron, now an analyst for TSN, said this week. "When they have the puck ... as a goalie, sometimes you have a tendency to look ahead because you think they're going to lose the puck -- 'He's not going to be able to plow his way through to the net' -- and both of these guys manage to get there because they're so strong physically. Some guys are deceptive with their speed, some guys are deceptive with their shot, those two guys are very deceptive with how strong they can be on the puck."
Schneider agreed on the physicality aspect to some degree.
"Sure, I think when Voracek added that power element to this game," they became similar, Schneider said. "That's the underrated part of Malkin's game. Obviously everyone knows about his skill, but his size and strength are very underrated. He can come through the neutral zone with speed, he can carve through guys, yes, but he also is able to use his frame to fend guys off and get to the net. Voracek has started to do that, too. Malkin though is able to protect the puck as well as anybody in the league. They are similar in some ways, but Malkin might be just a bit stronger, in my opinion."
Load up or not? Once in a while over the years, the Penguins have loaded up Malkin with Sidney Crosby for a midgame effect, but overall, they don't play together since they're both natural centers.
That's the difference in Philadelphia where Giroux and Voracek have formed a tremendous one-two punch on the top line.
Both situations are daunting for the opposition, but Schneider agrees that the Penguins generally present a tougher matchup because you have to pick your poison, a superstar center coming at you on different lines.
"Obviously the positions are an issue, where Crosby and Malkin are both centers, it makes sense to split them up, whereas Giroux is a center and Voracek a winger," Schneider said. "Putting them together makes sense. I think Giroux and Voracek, a lot of their damage comes on the power play as well; they're two of the most dangerous power-play guys in the league. Giroux sets up on the half wall and Voracek is lurking on his off side. They've had a really good power play for a while, and those two are big reasons why.
"But when you're facing Pittsburgh and both those guys are healthy and going at full speed, you can't pick one to shut down; you have to hope you have two lines that can do their best to try and keep them off the score sheet."
Prediction: The Flyers have certainly enjoyed success against the Penguins in recent years, but the Penguins have something to play for Wednesday as they try to finish second in the division and get home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Voracek and Malkin will each collect two points apiece, but the Penguins prevail 4-3.