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NEXT RUNNER-UP: EVENI MALKIN

Even Mark Cuban knew it, as he walked out of Mellon Arena on Oct. 24 with a $277 No. 71 Evgeni Malkin jersey. The Dallas Mavericks owner had just watched the 20-year-old Russian score the defining goal of his skyrocketing rookie season (so far, anyway). ÀWhat I saw in Pittsburgh was the most exciting glimpse of NHL greatness I have ever seen,” Cuban blogged days later. What he saw was this: Malkin flew across the blue line and caught a pass from fellow phenom Sidney Crosby, then pulled the puck from his forehand to his backhand, split New Jersey defensemen Colin White and Brad Lukowich, cut hard toward Marty BrodeurĦs net, stopped short, spun and slipped a backhand inside the right post, all while being hacked by White. ÀShades of Mario,” proclaimed the TVannouncer. Overnight, the goal became a YouTube classic. Penguins captain Mark Recchi isnĦt surprised by the buzz. ÀThe first day he stepped on the ice, I knew he was going to be all-world” says the 17-year vet.

You hate to make the comparison, but he reminded me of Mario.” ThereĦs that name again. ItĦs only natural that Malkin is likened to Lemieux. But the kidĦs size (6'3", 195 pounds), playmaking ability and shooterĦs touch recall nearly every NHL star, past and present, over six feet†Jean Beliveau, Vincent Lecavalier, Mats Sundin. ÀHeĦs big, strong and does everything at 100 mph,” Brodeur says. ÀHeĦs not afraid of traffic. HeĦs not afraid of anything.” MalkinĦs steely nerves served him well last August. After being coerced into signing a contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the Russian team that refused to release him to the NHL after he was drafted second overall in 2004, Malkin disappeared from the squad at the Helsinki airport. He resurfaced in the U.S. several days later, visa in hand. A breach-of-contract lawsuit followed, but he was determined to skate as a Penguin. ÀThis is most important,” Malkin says. ÀItĦs my dream to play in the NHL.” (The lawsuit was dismissed in November.) These days, itĦs the dream of Pens fans to keep hockey in the Steel City. If money woes force the team to leave town, true believers will have to follow MalkinĦs ascendency just like the rest of us: on YouTube. Then again, thatĦs a hell of a lot better than not seeing him at all.