Points don’t always tell the story in hockey. Sometimes points are the result of a great play. Sometimes points are the result of being in the right place at the right time and sometimes it’s the measure of hard work. For players with generational talent like Evgeni Malkin, the points don’t tell much of the story at all.
Malkin will get points with or without playing well. This season, the big Russian center has been frustrated with his play despite 65 points (20g, 45a) in 58 games. He has tried to compensate by doing more–trying harder. And the downward spiral followed. Over the last several weeks, perhaps month, the spiral has been an ascension.
“I understand it’s close. It’s coming,” Malkin said, “The last three of four games, I feel pretty good.”
Malkin has points in 19 of his last 21 games. But that’s not the point. Among those 21 games are several games when he was a minus -3, and several more when he was a minus-2. The Penguins have struggled to roll four lines all season. Not because they lack a fourth line capable of consistent play but because their second line led by Malkin or third line led by the traded Derick Brassard wasn’t pulling its weight.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Penguins flow from one line to the next has finally appeared. With Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann on the third line, and Evgeni Malkin tracking towards his best hockey, the Penguins are showing signs of life.
Of course, blowing leads in the final minutes against Philadelphia and Buffalo won’t do wonders for their confidence or the fanbase’s hopes. But in the totality of the last 180 minutes including Columbus, suddenly the Penguins are getting closer.
“When we play together, we have a great team. Four lines,” Malkin said in his broken English. “We’re playing (tonight) against a good team. We need to fight. They’re not easy games anymore.”
“It’s not easy but it’s a good challenge before the playoffs.”
And there it is. The veteran Penguins which have won two Stanley Cups and been in the playoffs every season since 2006-07 aren’t viewing their situation with fear. The injuries are bug has attacked the Penguins like biblical locusts but they have found a way to survive and in some cases thrive.
Positive spin? They earned points in three straight games and played most of those games without three of their top four defensemen.
“We try to be together and support each other. It’s a great organization and a great team. Everyone tries 100 percent,” Malkin said. “We can’t play at just 80 percent. We’re looking to the playoffs.”
The Penguins missed point last night was costly. They trail Carolina by one point for third place in the Metro and are tied with Columbus for the final wild-card spot, but Columbus has both one more ROW (Regulation Overtime Win) and one game in hand on the Penguins. The Penguins also trail Montreal by one point for a wild-card spot.
The same Montreal team they will face, Saturday night in Montreal. Malkin felt the Penguins were a bit unlucky, Friday. With so many scoring chances including his shot which rang off the post in overtime.
“I hope the next game, it’s a little bit of luck for us. Just play right–play the same with 40 shots, we’ll have a great chance to win.”
Since playing on the slush in the outdoor game, the Penguins have simplified their game. They’ve fired 43, 27 and 44 shots in their last three games. With some irony, the 27 shot performance against Columbus was their most complete game and a regulation victory.
For the first time in a long time, the playoffs are not guaranteed for this team. Sure, they stumbled in 2014-15 and clinched on the final day but they have not trailed and been forced to rally at this point in the season.
While the Penguins are physically banged up, a mentally healthy Evgeni Malkin could go a long way to overcoming those injuries. The Penguins are finally beginning to roll four lines with confidence.
“It’s coming,” Malkin said. For the Penguins playoff hopes, it needs to arrive soon.