Zach Aston-Reese – who just might find himself skating alongside Evgeni Malkin, at least in the short term, for the Pittsburgh Penguins – has a pretty good idea what the dominant version of Malkin looks like.
No big loops.
Aston-Reese moved up to Malkin’s line in the third period of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win at Washington after Jason Zucker got hurt. Then, and again during a team video session Wednesday, Aston-Reese noticed that Malkin had dropped a telltale bad habit from earlier points in the season. That is, Malkin was “not going for big loops.”
Instead, Aston-Reese said, Malkin was “stopping on pucks, being responsible defensively … playing a complete, 200-foot game.”
Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring Tuesday with a power-play goal and earned praise for his strong game, particularly early on.
“We think he’s trending the right way,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought his first period (Tuesday) night was a really good period for him. He had the puck an awful lot. He was a threat every time he went over the boards.”
There is a consensus in the Penguins organization – including comments by Malkin himself – that the elite center has looked off his feed through most of this season, whether because his offseason training was disrupted by gym closures in Moscow related to COVID-19, or training camps that were shortened for the same reason, or just a slow start that snowballed.
Malkin has four goals, 14 points in 17 games. His goal Tuesday gave him a three-game point streak (one goal, three assists).
But he still was a minus-2 Tuesday and has been a minus in four of the past five games.
“We’re just trying to work with Geno, just to chink out some of the areas of his game where sometimes he can be a little bit high-risk, and just (get him to where he’s) making better decisions in certain areas of the rink,” Sullivan said.
When things aren’t going well for Malkin, it seems he sometimes tries to do too much – at times overskating, passing up shots or taking on two or more opponents headlong while skating with the puck, apparently the high-risk moves and questionable decisions Sullivan referenced and the big loops Aston-Reese said Malkin said “you’ve kind of seen … from (Malkin) this year more so than maybe before.”
Sullivan has been careful in working with Malkin not to coach the elite level out of his game.
“We certainly don’t want to take the stick out of his hands because he’s a unique player in that circumstance,” Sullivan said. “We want to allow him to act on his instincts to do what he does best, but he’s just got to do it in a calculated fashion. We’re trying to work with him in that regard. But I do think his game is trending in the right way.”
Malkin has won two Art Ross trophies, a Hart Trophy and a Conn Smythe Trophy. He has a 50-goal season, two seasons with more than 40 goals and three seasons with more than 100 points.
It isn’t always a smooth transition when he has new linemates. Aston-Reese has a game plan should he find himself skating on Malkin’s line for a stretch of time, likely also with prodigious winger Bryan Rust.
“Playing with Malkin is always a little bit different,” Aston-Reese said. “He’s such a skilled player, makes a lot of things happen. So maybe instead of dumping the puck in, you try to make a play. He’s usually flying through the neutral zone or supporting on the wall in the (defensive) zone looking for the puck. So being able to make those little five-, six-foot plays for him (is the aim). I’m hoping not to grip the stick too tightly playing with those guys. I’ve played with (Malkin) before and playing with him and Rusty, it’s just a matter of finding good scoring areas and the quiet areas on the ice and getting open for those guys.”
There have been some concerns in public forums that Evgeni Malkin, 34, is simply showing the signs of aging, that his skills are beginning to erode.
The Penguins don’t seem to be ready to see Malkin that way.
“He’s been one of the best players in the league for a long time,” center Teddy Blueger said. “If he didn’t have a great game here or there, I don’t think that changes that.
“He brought a lot of energy, made a lot of plays (Tuesday), playing fast. Anytime he’s on the rush, a scoring chance is bound to happen. Obviously, when he’s at his best, that helps a lot. We count on him a lot in order for us to be successful.”