Evgeni Malkin's dominance of the hockey world reached historical proportions Saturday with a signature performance in the semifinals of the IIHF World Hockey Championship. The Russian star scored three times in a 6-2 win over host Finland to assure himself of at least a share of the tournament scoring title.
"No words," said teammate Alex Ovechkin. "You can see it. I think right now he's the best and I don't think anybody can stop him."
Gretzky is the only man to lead both the NHL and world championship in scoring in the same season — until now.
Malkin's eye-opening play in Stockholm and Helsinki over the last two weeks has come with some serious style. Trailing Sweden 3-1 in an important round-robin game early in the tournament, Malkin completely took over the game with three goals over a span of 15 minutes as Russia rallied for a 7-3 victory.
And then there was Saturday's semifinal.
Finland had an excellent start and an early 1-0 lead at Hartwall Arena, where the amped-up fans briefly had the chance to dream of seeing their team in the gold-medal game. Malkin almost single-handedly dashed those hopes, scoring twice before the first intermission and adding a third on a booming one-timer in the second that prompted Russian fans to litter the ice with hats.
It came on Malkin's first shift back after crashing into the end boards while racing Joonas Jarvinen for a loose puck. The Russian stayed down for quite a while and left favouring his left arm. But there was no real damage done.
"I came back and it was nothing bad," said Malkin. "After I scored. Slapshot is good."
Malkin will be looking for his first world championship gold on Sunday night when Russia faces Slovakia. The underdog Slovaks — who have dedicated their tournament to the memory of Pavol Demitra — followed their upset of Canada in the quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over the Czech Republic on Saturday.
Any chance of another miraculous victory will require them to find a way to slow down No. 11 in red.
The stingy Finns did all they could on Saturday, but Malkin had the look of a man who refused to be denied. Because of the visit to the dressing room that came after he crashed into the boards, only two Russian players played less than his 12:12 of ice time — and no one came remotely close to having his impact.
"He's a great player," said Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen.
This was a particularly important tournament for Malkin, who called Pittsburgh's first-round loss to Philadelphia in the playoffs the most disappointing moment of his NHL career. It came after a regular season where the centre took his game to another level and won the scoring title by 12 points over Steven Stamkos.
When all is said and done this season, there's a chance he'll have won the Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award along with a potential haul here that is likely to include the world championship MVP award and a gold or silver medal.
Interestingly, Gretzky also won his world championship scoring title in Helsinki back in 1982. Malkin's tournament has included 10 goals and 18 points in nine games so far. He's celebrated every goal with the enthusiasm of a young boy.
"I've worked hard," he said. "We have a great organization and a great team and of course a great chance to win. I just focus every game and every practice. It's lucky for me I scored three goals tonight."
In truth, there was nothing lucky about it.
Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov would only share a few words about Malkin's play in the tournament, but he indicated that it has left him with "the best impression" possible. There should be very little argument that he's been the best player on the planet this season — a title that has unofficially bounced between him, Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby over the last five or six years.
These are the players that will define this generation of hockey stars. While none has managed to stay on top of the heap as long as Gretzky did, they've all hit significant highs.
Malkin is in the midst of his at the moment.
"He's a leader," said Russia teammate Nikolai Kulemin. "He's playing great and helps our team a lot. He's always doing his things on the ice and everybody follows him."