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PITTSBURGH (AP) - Brand-new locker room humorist Evgeni Malkin is making fun of his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates in two languages, and they're loving it.
Coach Dan Bylsma is pleased because Malkin is laughing at his dry-humor witticisms. Sidney Crosby doesn't have a goal in the Stanley Cup finals, yet he's smiling, too.
The yuk-it-up Penguins trail the defending champion Detroit Red Wings 2-1 going into Game 4 on Thursday night, but it was difficult to tell from their off-day levity that they weren't ahead.
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They're not acting at all like they did when they were down a game in this same situation last year, against the same opponent. And it's certainly not because Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, who is capable of winning a game at both ends of the ice, expects to play after sitting out six games with a foot injury.
"It's a lot different than last year, that's for sure," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said Wednesday.
That was evident as Malkin repeatedly made fun of teammate Max Talbot, whose two goals during Pittsburgh's 4-2 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday included one into an empty net.
Malkin did it in English, too, rather than the native Russian that the NHL regular-season scoring champion used before this season, with defenseman Sergei Gonchar acting as his interpreter.
Malkin: "I'm seeing how Max plays, it's a lot of emotion ... and a little bit bad hands. He has a lot of scoring chances, but (does) not score. Just empty net."
Talbot: "I'm speechless right now, thanks Geno."
Later, teammate Bill Guerin said, "That's one side that I don't really think people understand. I think people think he (Malkin) is a quiet guy. But he's got a great sense of humor to him, yeah."
A pretty good set of hands, too, as Malkin has 33 points, the most in the NHL playoffs since Joe Sakic had 34 for Colorado in 1996.
Malkin's upgraded play is one of the reasons the Penguins are optimistic they can pull off a comeback after losing the first two games on the road, despite the fact only one of 32 teams has previously overcome such a deficit in the finals.
Malkin, badly off his game while being shut out in the first four games against Detroit last year, has a goal, four assists and the look of a player who could take over a series. Crosby, who trails only Malkin in playoff scoring with 29 points, has only one assist in three games and has yet to take off. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury settled down after two shaky losses to make 27 saves on Tuesday.
"I'm learning how to play now, it's the second final - it's the same team," Malkin said. "I know how to play Detroit, and I try to play a little harder."
The Penguins also believe they are better prepared to take anything Detroit can throw at them after weathering a thrill-a-minute second period of Game 3 in which they were outshot 14-4. The Penguins also trailed Washington 2-0 in the second round before winning four of the last five, as they now must do to win the Stanley Cup.
"Last year, we weren't happy at all," Crosby said. "We knew we had a lot of work to do. We hadn't found our game yet. But I feel at this point we know what it takes."
Of course, the Penguins wouldn't be the first team to be wrongly convinced it was ready to take down hockey's most accomplished and consistent winners, a team that would likely make its fifth Stanley Cup since 1997 a mere formality by winning Thursday night.
"We look at it like, `Hey, they won one game and played real well, but ... we can put ourselves in a great position by winning,"' defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.
The return of Datsyuk, the Hart Trophy finalist and shutdown defender, has the potential to alter the series. Getting Datsyuk back might allow coach Mike Babcock to trim Zetterberg's ice time; he played 24-plus minutes while all but accompanying Crosby to the bench between shifts in Game 3.
What Datsyuk didn't lose during his absence was his sense of humor, which was in abundance on both sides - especially by the Russians.
"Oh, I tell you, this is not fun to watch," Datsyuk said of sitting out. "I take in lots of beer."
What is this, the Stanley Cup finals or tryouts for David Letterman?
Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood also is wearing the no-big-deal look of a relaxed player who's won three Stanley Cups and knows how to deal with the occasional loss.
"The games have been played at a higher competition level and a lot closer than they have been before," Osgood said. "They've gained experience and added some key elements. ... But it's ironic that all three games have gone exactly the same as they did last year."
Notes: Detroit is 3-1 after a loss. ... The last five teams to lose Game 3 won the Stanley Cup. ... 4.
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