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The Pens Top Two Biggest Stories from 2012

Aside from the dreaded lockout that grounded everything to a halt, 2012 was a memorable year with another scoring championship, some meaningful contract extensions, a tight division race and one of the sloppiest playoff series you'll ever see.

Charles Leclaire-US PRESSWIRE

This is the last installment of the "best of 2012" series. Here's moments 3-5, in case you missed it.

Without further ado...

2. Sidney Crosby's return to health in March and consistent improvement during lockout

The beginning of 2012 for Crosby closely resembled the beginning of 2011: Crosby experiencing concussion-like symptoms, forbidding him from playing the game he was destined to dominate. The biggest difference, thankfully, was the speed with which Crosby returned to the ice. After playing a Dec. 5 game against the Bruins, Crosby was banished to the press box until the following March against the New York Rangers.

Crosby played 14 regular season games in 2012 and he recorded points in 10 of them. Nine of them were multi-point games. Most impressive was Crosby wasn’t even playing at the fall/winter-of-2010 level of domination. As we unfortunately are reminded, everything went to the pits in the playoffs, but a tiny upside that gave us was more time for Crosby to "recuperate."

It’s been almost nine months since Crosby has donned a Pens sweater and there’s no doubt in our minds that Crosby is 100-percent healthy and ready to go. Matt Niskanen also gave a huge bit of news that has Pens fans all the more excited to get the season rolling:

Sid has always been incredibly strong on the puck, probably the strongest guy in the league. And that hasn’t changed. But what’s different about him right now is how much faster he is. I’ve never seen him this fast, making plays with the puck at this fast of a speed. I’m telling you, it’s pretty scary what he’s going to do whenever we start playing again.

Anyone else feel like running a marathon from joyful energy after hearing that?

Despite Crosby's health, I know many of us will naturally flinch every time Crosby is on the receiving end of a hard check. We can only hope we never have to go through that mess again. However, we know that Crosby is ready to finish what he started in 2010.

1. Evgeni Malkin. MVP.

Any season that doesn't end with a championship is considered a disappointment, especially in Pittsburgh where we take our sports so personally. To say this was a disappointing season/playoffs is an understatement, but Malkin made it better. So, so much better.

With 50 goals and 59 assists in only 75 games, Malkin ran away with the the Hart Trophy votes. Claiming 1,473 votes (Steven Stamkos came in second with 598), it wasn't even a contest. Standing at the podium to accept his award, Malkin charmed us in a way only a Russian hockey player still struggling with his English could:

Evgeni Malkin wins the Hart Memorial Trophy @ 2012 Awards 6/20/12 (via NHLVideo)

I remember thinking just how lucky we were to have this breath-taking hockey player with a great heart (Hart?).

There's so much I can say about Malkin's 2012, but what truly stands out above the rest is how he's just there for the Pens when they need him. When Crosby goes down with an injury, he's there pushing the team forward (a team that tends to be suffer with more than one injury at a time, at that). When Crosby's healthy, Malkin becomes the second-in-command, so to speak. Malkin isn't stupid; he knows the Pens are "Crosby's team" and something tells me he doesn't mind receiving less attention because of that. Even then, it would be understandable if there was some animosity because of the unfair treatment Malkin often receives at the hands of Pens fans obsessed with proving Crosby is better. Doesn't seem to be the case, as noted here:

Crosby is the best player in the world, that’s why I miss playing with such a teammate. It is a pleasure to play in the same team as him, moreover, in one line. I miss not only him, but also Pittsburgh, which has become my second hometown.

Nothing but respect.

Malkin has been doing his thing over in the KHL since the start of the lockout so there's no need to be concerned about his condition when hockey returns. But with him and Crosby potentially entering this NHL season on the top of their game?

The rest of the NHL ought to be concerned.