It was not the loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the season’s penultimate game that cost the Pittsburgh Penguins their highly valued 16-year playoff streak. The Penguins veterans instead look back with regret on the number of opportunities they punted away throughout the season, including points given away in October. The lesson seems to have made an indelible impression upon Evgeni Malkin, whose three-game start to the season has been some of the best hockey he’s played over the last few seasons.
Malkin is driving the Penguins offense with a vengeance.
Linemate Reilly Smith has a pair of goals, and it could be three times more. Malkin’s baseline stats are six points, two goals, four assists, and 15 shots. Digging deeper, he has 12 scoring chances at 5v5, four high-danger chances, and he’s drawn three penalties without taking one.
Malkin leads the NHL in scoring (he’s tied with Austin Matthews, Elias Pettersson, and teammate Jake Guentzel).
“I hope tomorrow the season is over and I win the Art Ross Trophy,” Malkin quipped Saturday after the Penguins dispatched the Calgary Flames 5-2 at PPG Paints Arena.
It’s been a long off-season. Hard lessons usually come with pain, and when the NHL moved on without the Penguins in the playoffs, the star players, including Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, were forced to confront a six-month offseason. In the meantime, the Penguins organization made sweeping changes to the front office by hiring president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas, leading to a nearly 50% overturn of the Penguins roster.
The early returns are positive, at least on a few issues, including Smith’s acquisition and Malkin’s rejuvenation.
“I mean (I have) lots of motivation. I don’t want to step on the ice and do nothing, just skate around,” Malkin deadpanned. “It’s interesting when you win (you’re in) a good mood after. Look around. Everybody’s smiling right now. It’s so much better. Tomorrow, we practice. It’s (a) much better mood when you come to the rink.”
Through the ebbs and flows of a season, different lines will fill the net and fill the void for other lines that have gone cold. The Pittsburgh Penguins are set up a little bit differently. The bottom six won’t add a lot of offense. The scoreboard will most often depend on the power play and the top two lines with Crosby and Malkin.
Crosby’s line put a couple of pucks in the net Saturday, and Crosby has three goals this season, but they’re also a bit underwater, allowing more shot attempts and scoring chances than they’ve earned.
But Malkin has put on a show with some help from Reilly.
“I hope we keep going (the) same. He’s a great player, has a great shot, a great skill guy, and I just give him a pass, you know,” said Malkin. “The last couple of games we’ve played pretty well. I don’t want to talk too much about this, but just stay focused. Stay positive. Help each other.”
Malkin’s third period goal also tied Alexander Mogilny (473) with the third-most career goals among Russian-born players. Malkin is 10 behind Sergei Federov
“I’ll try catching Ovechkin, maybe,” Malkin joked.
It is all smiles when Malkin is on his toes. He probably won’t score 164 points, but he has five takeaways compared to four giveaways, a 61% faceoff win rate, and a few big smiles.
“Coach said right away, these two points (are the) same — like two points in March or February,” said Malkin. “We understand (that) we need to play hard, every at least home game. The third period was amazing for everybody.”
Perhaps the Penguins should have had a long offseason sooner?