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Flustered Malkin Needs a Boost; Pens Reunite w/ Kessel?

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PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 06: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Phil Kessel (81) and Pittsburgh Penguins Center Evgeni Malkin (71) share a laugh during a break in the third period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators on April 6, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. The Penguins shutout the Senators in a 4-0 win. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Evgeni Malkin spoke in the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins locker room yesterday in Glendale, Arizona. The Penguins have lost two straight with ugly, listless performances. But those two games are far less concerning to the team and organization than Malkin’s confusion.

For all of the hand wringing and worry, Malkin is still scoring more than a point per game. But statistics aren’t everything. Hockey is unique in that points don’t necessarily equate to success. And Malkin is not feeling successful.

The team website termed it a “crisis of confidence.”

Like a baseball player in a slump, Malkin has been changing his skates, his sticks, and his equipment. Malkin told the Penguins website:

“The problem is only in my head,” he said. “I know that. My gear is fine. When you’re not confident, you change everything, gloves, sticks, skates.”

And all of this despite scoring 10 points (2g, 8a) in his last seven games including eight of those points at even strength.

“We watched the video today with (the coaches). I see my mistakes,” Malkin told the team site. “I want to play better.”

“No turnovers in the neutral zone. Last game I tried to beat two guys 1-on-1. It doesn’t work right now. I need to be simple. Maybe chip the puck into the offensive zone and play simple. (If I) score a couple of goals, the confidence will be back.”

Mike Sullivan, who has pushed buttons with his team all season and been successful, is pushing another button with Malkin.

“We’re trying to help him with some of the little insights that we see. We don’t want him to overthink the game,” Sullivan said.

And to jumpstart Malkin’s confidence, to get that goal or two, or four, the Penguins reunited Malkin with his buddy Phil Kessel, Thursday at practice. The pair is known to want to play together more often, but they can also detract from each other’s game.

The Malkin-Kessel pairing became a thing last season as Malkin charged towards the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy consideration, while Kessel posted a career-best 92 points (34g, 58a). However, the pair is prone to forgetting about their defensive responsibilities.

In September, Malkin deadpanned to a media scrum including Pittsburgh Hockey Now, “I know coach wants us to play better defensively.”

Since the Penguins will not hold a morning skate Friday, we will not know until tonight if Patric Hornqvist will play–he too practiced yesterday–and who will be the right wing beside Malkin.

Malkin and Kessel began this season together but were a lightning rod for the Penguins struggles. The roller coaster ride included highs but also lows with defensive lapses leading to big goals-against. After some veiled directives seemingly aimed at them, they were broken up in November when center Derick Brassard returned to the lineup.

While Kessel has struggled to produce with Brassard, Malkin has been creating offense with a rotating cast which includes Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon, and Tanner Pearson. But in addition to Malkin’s points have been the nightly turnovers at the offensive blue line. Malkin on the stat sheet has been a much better player than Malkin on the ice.

And that frustration has caught up to Malkin.

“It’s been a tough year for me,” Malkin said. “My play has been up and down. One game good and one not. I need to play more good ones before the (All-Star) break.”

Sullivan has been ever-present this season. The head coach has managed a whirlwind of situations and struggles within the lineup. Brassard-Kessel hasn’t exactly provided the balanced scoring which the Penguins crave.

It’s not the skates or the gloves. It’s one of the best players of this generation and one of the greatest Russian players of all-time. Perhaps place a small wager on the coach also knowing Malkin could use a little fun, at least for a game.

*The quotes from Evgeni Malkin were exclusively from the Pittsburgh Penguins team website.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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