Though he's yet to play a regular-season game for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin already is drawing comparisons to the face of the franchise.
Not Sidney Crosby, but Mario Lemieux.
Having recovered from a dislocated left shoulder suffered in the preseason, Malkin is expected to make his regular-season debut when the Penguins welcome the New Jersey Devils to Mellon Arena on Wednesday night.
Malkin was selected second overall in the 2004 NHL draft behind Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, but returned to Russia and averaged better than a point per game in the regular season for Magnitogorsk. He snuck away from that team in August to make his way to the United States to start his NHL career.
"I'm a little bit nervous before every game, but I'm not going to be too much more nervous before the first one," Malkin said through a translator after practice Monday. "But we will see how it goes."
At 6-foot-4, Malkin is reminding some of Lemieux - the Hall of Famer who scored on his first shot taken on his first shift for the Penguins in his 1984 debut.
"He's really good. He's going to be scary good," veteran Mark Recchi said of Malkin. "I hate to bring up this comparison, but I don't think we've seen anybody with his size who can skate like him and do as much as him. He's as close to Mario as we're going to see for a long time.
"Obviously, some people have tried to pass that torch along to other people, but the way he skates and sees the ice, he's the whole package."
A heart ailment forced Lemieux to finish his career last season as the NHL's seventh all-time leading scorer with 1,723 points. Earlier this month, Lemieux's ownership group agreed to sell the team to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie for about $175 million.
Pittsburgh (2-2-0) has alternated wins and losses in its first four games this season, including a 5-1 defeat on Monday against Carolina. The Penguins' 11 goals scored are the fewest in the Atlantic Division. Only Boston and Ottawa - with 10 each - have tallied fewer in the Eastern Conference.
With Malkin, Pittsburgh could have one of the top two picks from each of the last four drafts in the lineup at the same time. He would join goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (No. 1, 2003) and teenage centers Crosby (No. 1, 2005) and Jordan Staal (No. 2, 2006).
When Malkin takes his first shot on goal, it likely will be at a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender looking for a milestone. After two straight one-goal victories, the Devils (3-2-0) lost to the New York Rangers 4-2 on Monday night, denying Martin Brodeur his 450th career win.
Only Florida's Ed Belfour (457) and Patrick Roy (551) have more regular-season wins than Brodeur. Belfour is now a backup for the Panthers behind Alex Auld, and Roy will be inducted in the NHL Hall of Fame next month.
Brodeur, who tied a career high with 43 wins last season, is 25-16 with four ties and a 2.79 goals-against average in his career versus Pittsburgh.
Rookie Travis Zajac and Scott Gomez scored for the Devils in the loss to New York. Gomez had four goals and six assists in eight games against Pittsburgh last season. Linemate Patrik Elias managed four goals and three assists in four games. He was limited to 38 total games while recovering from hepatitis A.
The Devils won the last three games of the season series in 2005-06, and took five of the eight games overall.
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