June 2, 2009
Evgeni Vladmirovich Malkin sat alone in a dark corner of the locker room. It was hours before the third game of the Stanley Cup Finals. He and his team had suffered two frustrating defeats at the hands of a bitter rival: the Detroit Red Wings. Their stadium, the Joe Louis Arena, was a hostile place if ever there was one, loud and intimidating. The building itself seemed to be alive by aiding its home warriors with strangely fortuitous bounces off of the dasher boards, several of which had found their way to the back of a bewildered Marc-Andre Fleury’s net. Evgeni was glad to leave that place, but determined to go back.
He was home now, in the rainswept slopes of Pittsburgh. There was something very familiar about this city that he loved. It had a uniquely Russian quality that he could not quiet identify. Perhaps it was the terrain. The city’s undulating peaks and steep edifices reminded him greatly of the foothills of the Urals in his native land. Perhaps it was the weather: mostly clouds with an occasional sun break that warmed the hearts of the inhabitants. Perhaps it was the people of the city. They were hard people with soft hearts, often obstructed in their daily lives by their unreasonable emotions. Then again, he thought, the playoffs can make a person unreasonable.
This year’s path to the NHL Championship had been much more difficult than last year’s and he was certainly feeling the exhaustion of a long season in his aching bones. They had battled with another Pennsylvanian team who played a rough brand of Canadian-style hockey and come out on top.
Malkin and his teammate Sidney Crosby elevated their play to legendary levels during their series in the Nation’s Capital. During the regular season, barely a hat-trick’s worth of points separated himself from his rival countryman: Alexander Ovechkin. But Malkin had disposed of him in dramatic and brutal fashion in the final game of the series.
The team moved on to a place that was unfamiliar to him and thus to hockey in general. Endless rows of tobacco crops lined the roads to the venue of choice for their opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals. The team from the South had been too drained by their previous series to compete and Evgeni Rex had wreaked havoc on their hockey sensibilities.
But from the sun-drenched roads of Carolina he knew a much more hostile environment awaited him. Detroit. A city much like Pittsburgh but with a darker aura about it. The city was a ghost shell that still supported life despite being a barren and dying land; and the life living there was ugly and vicious.
The first two competitions in Detroit left Geno unfulfilled. He had scored only one of his team’s two combined goals. The Detroit defense was stifling; every time Sidney Crosby touched the puck, three future Hall of Fame candidates swarmed on top of him. Every time Jordan Staal received a pass, he was thwarted by a slew of elbows and fists cloaked in padded gloves. No excuse for me though, Malkin thought. Even if I must bend, I will break them.
Before he left his new house in Pittsburgh, he had kissed his mother Natalia on the cheek; she wished him luck. Natalia had seen the last two games and new that a little good fortune was all her son needed to win.
“Luck has left me,” he told her in Russian. “Luck has left us. We have used it all to get here. I can only rely on myself and my brothers: Sidney, Bill, Cookie, Max, Fleury, Gronk, Scuds, Free Candy, the little Tiger and the others.”
His Cossack blood boiled now as he thought of the dominant Detroit Swedes treading into his new homeland with happiness in their hearts and smiles on their lips. He would not let them leave the city as glad-hearted as they entered.
The motion detectors in the locker room automatically switched off the last slivers of light. There, in the pitch black, Malkin sat like a stone, bathed in the thoughts of wiping the shame of past defeats away from his town.
He would bring glory to his new Motherland.
He would bring the Cup to Pittsburgh.