Evgeni Malkin had two goals and was on the ice for two even-strength Penguins goals. Jason Zucker had an assist on the Penguins second line in the team’s 7-2 rip on the Detroit Red Wings Saturday.
The stats look good.
Their game did not, at least for most of the 60 minutes.
Malkin and the Penguins’ second line did not find their stride or make themselves noticeable until later in the third period after the Red Wings hoisted the white flag in what was already a 5-2 game.
The advanced stats on Natural Stat Trick also showed the Malkin line had five high-danger scoring chances, compared to giving up just one. However, a few of those chances came in the third period. Malkin finished with six shots on goal, but had two in the first 40 minutes.
If the Penguins faced a better opponent or tighter game, Malkin’s detached first 40 minutes would have been a negative rather than an ancillary note. Though head coach Mike Sullivan offered praise of Evgeni Malkin on Saturday.
“I thought he was good. You know, he’s obviously scored a couple of goals and makes our power play so much harder to play against,” Sullivan said. “I thought his line had a lot of offensive zone time. I thought he was solid.”
However, Sullivan dished a subtle critique of Malkin’s play on Friday when asked about his line configurations and keeping Bryan Rust with Malkin, and Rickard Rakell with Sidney Crosby.
“I think (Malkin’s) play five-on-five has been sporadic. There have been times when he’s been really good, but I think his best games are where he’s been playing with Rusty,” Sullivan said after practice Friday. “ I think Rusty brings a certain dimension to that line that helps Geno and whoever we have on the other flank with him be effective.”
Malkin’s inactivity possibly played a role in his game. He missed the previous four games, which spanned nearly two weeks after a four-game suspension for an “aggressive cross-check” against Nashville.
However, Sullivan’s point-blank negative assessment is both an admission and a challenge for Malkin to improve.
The Penguins had just seven shots in the first period. The second period was going sideways, and the hapless Detroit Red Wings suddenly looked like they could pull off the spoiler upset.
Midway through the second, the Crosby line turned the tide. Sullivan leaned on his top line to change the direction of the game, and as Crosby and his linemates have done so often this season, they did.
It can’t always be Crosby that settles the game or provides the offense.
Malkin can be one of those players, too. When the playoffs begin, they won’t be facing a 10-ply opponent that quits in the third period. Crosby won’t always be able to flip the script.
The Penguins need Malkin.
And that’s why the Penguins’ Russian star could be playing for his Pittsburgh future. He doesn’t yet have a contract for next season, and there has been little chatter regarding progress on a new deal to keep “Geno” in Pittsburgh beyond his 16th season.
You don’t need to be reminded the Pittsburgh Penguins have just one playoff series win in the last four years and none in the last three. Since returning from major knee surgery in February, Malkin’s age, potential cost, and uneven play only add uncertainty to his future.
“I’m like a pretty rich guy,” Malkin joked with PHN in February when we asked about a new contract.
It would seem the issues are linked. The Penguins need more…now. They need a responsible Malkin who makes a commensurate impact for playing nearly 20 minutes per game on what should be a scoring line. They need Malkin to be his best in the coming playoffs.
The Penguins need the best of Malkin. He’s been good, sometimes. And not good enough, sometimes.
Whatever lies ahead in the next three weeks or beyond, Evgeni Malkin will play a primary role in determining the results. Whether it is inconsistent play, silly penalties (see also cross-checking Mark Borowiecki), or fading into the background, the Penguins cannot win anything significant without the better Malkin.
If he doesn’t deliver now, there may not be another chance.
But if he shows his value–and getting his game right in the next few games would help tremendously–then he is far more apt to get his wish and stick around to see his career through in Pittsburgh.
He’ll need to be more of the third period version of Evgeni Malkin and much less of the first 40 minutes version. A lot is riding on the next few weeks for both player and team.