Imagine a bad year concluding with 72 points and over 20 goals. Yet Evgeni Malkin was thoroughly unhappy with last season and vowed this season would be the best of himself. When Malkin spoke Wednesday night after his eighth career five-point game, he sounded like a player who fully understood his position and what is required.
And he is performing like a player who understands what the team needs from him, as well. In turn, head coach Mike Sullivan is showing trust in Malkin.
“I understand it’s my time. I’m trying to do my best,” Malkin said. “Confidence (in me) is important. (When) the coach gives me a faceoff in the D-zone, I understand I need to win the faceoff. When I win it, I feel it. It’s a fun game right now.”
Go ahead and re-read those comments from Malkin. He said everything in those few sentences.
In the seven games since the Penguins learned captain Sidney Crosby would be out at least six weeks, Malkin went on a tear. He has points in five of the seven games, including four multi-point games. In that span, he has 12 points (4g, 8a).
It is a fun game when you’re filling the net, lighting the scoreboard, helping the team in high-pressure situations, and a coach with whom you have had friction gives you the tap to be the guy to win an important defensive zone faceoff and avoid danger.
“He’s one of the best players in the world. Just the way he’s playing right now…it’s special to see,” said current linemate Jake Guentzel.
Malkin’s confidence is swelling as fast as his numbers. One crucial stat is turnovers. For most of Malkin’s career, he has been nearly even or well underwater with the puck stat. Last year, he had 64 takeaways but an ungodly 84 giveaways. This season in his 14 games, he has 13 giveaways but a remarkable 19 takeaways. Those are the kind of numbers Malkin posted when he won the Conn Smythe trophy in 2009. These are types of numbers he displayed when he won the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award in 2012.
Those takeaways paint an aggressive picture confirmed by watching the games. Malkin is playing his best game. He is backchecking and pressuring opponents. With that condor-like reach and great-player anticipation, he is taking the puck away.
“Confidence is huge right now. With (Guentzel) and (Bryan Rust), they help me so much. They’re two great players,” Malkin said Wednesday night. “We’re the leadership right now and just enjoying it.”
Six months ago, did you really think you would see Evgeni Malkin leading the Penguins with a firm jaw and confidence?
“We know we’re leaders and can help the team to win,” Malkin concluded.
Things came to a head last summer. The Penguins had locker room problems, which included Malkin in some form or another. There were Penguins trade talks which involved Malkin for the first time. Both the player and team came to a crossroads. Malkin had to buy-in. The Penguins needed more, but maybe they had to give a little, too.
The two sides talked. And they talked more through the World Championships in May. And over the summer. It wasn’t long before Malkin’s name was again a non-starter on the trade market. Instagram photos appeared, which showed Malkin in intense workouts.
“I played in the World Championships, and then I rested for only a couple of weeks,” Malkin said. “Afterwards, I started skating with a power-skating coach. We’ worked for a couple of weeks. I found ice in Miami (where he lives in the offseason). I found ice there, and I skated in Moscow, too.”
Evgeni Malkin made the headspace. He put in the work. Now he and the Penguins are reaping the benefits.