PITTSBURGH — Well, that didn’t take long. Pittsburgh Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin had a worthy performance in the Penguins season opener against the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night. However, he was only one of a few Penguins who could make that claim. Instead, the Penguins were embarrassed by a lackluster effort, disorganized play and bad habits which were supposed to have been cleared away with the long summer. The Buffalo Sabres beat the Penguins 3-1 Thursday at PPG Paints Arena.
And Malkin torched the Penguins afterward.
We should note in Malkin’s broken English, often present and past tense can be mixed. How he meant a few of the comments are a matter of conjecture. In the interest of not deciding for you, we’ll present the comments with few edits.
“Everything. We’re not good enough. They were hungry, they played so much faster. They win battles,” Malkin said while shaking his head.
Such criticism of his own team could be a serious note in January, but after the first game raised the stakes. He and head coach Mike Sullivan struck decidedly negative tones. However, Malkin went beyond just a single game and it sounded like he is worried about his team.
“Young guys are around the league right now. We need to play faster. We need to play hungry. Every puck we need a win,” Malkin said. “It’s not good for us; how we played tonight, we need to change.”
The Penguins season is just 60 minutes old and Malkin is already scratching his head over young players beating the Penguins and saying the Penguins need to change. So much for the “it’s just one game” excuse. Malkin didn’t mince words, but it does come off as fragile, too.
“Exhibitions games are done. It’s the real game right now,” he warned. “…We have to understand every team is dangerous. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s Buffalo or Washington, you know? We need to learn how we played tonight and play better. Like, 100% better.”
“The season started already. We need to understand that. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we have 20 games to wake up.’ No, (the season) has already started. Points are important,” Malkin continued. “Every year it’s harder and harder to make the playoffs. We understand that, but lots of young guys, they’re hungry and want to play in this league.”
Malkin referenced young players, being faster and hungrier three times in the first 90 seconds. You’re not alone if you wonder if that is an internal fear which exacerbated Malkin’s angst. He must know that he is 33-years-old and chances to win the Stanley Cup are now few. Was he also raging against the dying of the light?
Last season, Malkin had a rough year. He scored 72 points (21g, 51a) but his performances were wrought with turnovers and missed opportunities. No one was happy. This is to be the rebound season. Malkin hit the ice with a vengeance Thursday and was the Penguins best player through the first two periods.
However, his team failed to be inspired by flashes of vintage Malkin. Even as he fought to prove he isn’t done, his team was AWOL. The first game of the season is not a must-win game. But the hope and anticipation attached to the opener make it more important, if only mentally. Thursday night the optimism soured.
“It’s not the process, it’s yourself. Are you hungry,” he rhetorically asked. “But if you turn it over, play around with the puck, it’s not the game.”
Malkin’s criticism also extended to the power play.
“We looked at each other; we didn’t help each other or support each other. We scored like one power-play goal and we think like they give it us again to score,” Malkin lamented.
“We need to play hard. We need to work. They gave us a chance on the power play, play hungry. Win the puck in the corner. Play right.”
“Our breakout,” Malkin shook his head and exhaled, “nobody wants the puck.”
For the fans who grew more nervous throughout the game and wondered aloud (or on Twitter) if this is what the Penguins are, Malkin clearly has the same worries. A confident team would not be shaken by laying an egg, even in the first game. A team that is sure of itself would simply shrug. However, the New York Islanders popped the Penguins bubble last April. The assumed greatness or success was taken away and replaced with doubt and wonder.
The long offseason was to be a great refresher and allow players time to recommit. Instead, the Penguins appeared to resume the play which earned them early tee-times on courses across the US and Canada. Malkin’s stern comments on Oct. 3 are far more than the words used. Regardless if he was talking about one game or sounding the alarm for the next 81 games, the Penguins must buck the trend of history. Multi-Stanley Cup championship teams in LA and Chicago washed away soon after their championship run.
After their 2015 Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks lost a pair of Round One series including suffering a sweep in 2017 before they missed the playoffs just three years removed from their last championship. The Penguins are now in their third year following their last Stanley Cup and also suffered a sweep in their most recent playoff performance.
It sounded as much like anxiety, not confidence, and Malkin called out the Penguins failure. Single games are not supposed to matter. The easy thing to do is to dismiss it. However, Mike Sullivan did not strike a dismissive tone, either. The Penguins have not won a game since April 4, 2019.
Perhaps a win isn’t the only thing the Penguins need right now. A double shot of confidence might help, too.