On the surface, Evgeni Malkin is off to a good and fairly typical start in what has been a bumpy opening month for the Penguins. He’s tied for the team lead in goals (5), points (13) and game-winning goals (2), and his seven power play points (also tied for the team lead) have helped a fairly dominant power play prop up the rest of the attack through 13 games.
That is on the surface.
But Malkin is shooting the puck at an all-time low frequency, taking an average of 2.6 per game, and despite taking seven shots over the past two games, often seems more intent on making plays than scoring goals – especially when Phil Kessel is on his right. Perhaps that was a factor in coach Mike Sullivan playing him with Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist for most of Sunday’s dismal 7-1 loss in Winnipeg, a game in which Malkin also had more problems with turnovers. But that’s a different column.
To help snap Pittsburgh out of its five-on-five scoring funk, Malkin must get more pucks to the net. He’s an elite goal-scorer who needs to be more selfish in the offensive zone, and simplifying his approach – just taking the scoring chances in front of him – might be a symbolic step forward for a team that needs to simplify so many aspects of its game.
Shoot the Puck!
Malkin finished either first or second on the team in average shots per game in eight of his first nine NHL seasons. But he was fifth two seasons ago (a career-low 2.8) and then third last season, and heading into Wednesday’s game in Edmonton he sits fifth again. He’s taking an average of just 1.7 even-strength shots per game and recently played almost 47 minutes over parts of three games without a shot on goal – a nearly incomprehensible figure.
He’s attempted three or fewer shots in five of his last seven games, so this is not about hitting the net more often. Malkin is not thinking shot. He’s often looking for plays that are not there or forcing pucks toward teammates who are covered. By shooting when he has time and space, or skating himself into open space and then shooting, Malkin will give the Penguins a needed different dimension at even strength and also help the power play.
Despite the success of the power play and his contributions there, Malkin should know that the downfall of even the best power plays is predictability. Continuing to prefer moving the puck to Kessel via cross-ice passes or to Kris Letang at the center point on the power play will only encourage penalty killers to begin taking passing lanes away from him; they’ll reconsider once he starts directing pucks on goal.
Seriously, Shoot the Puck!
Malkin took two power plays shots over the last two games – and scored on both. Hardly coincidence given his skill set. The sight of Malkin passing up shots is not unusual, but the rate at which he’s doing it these days is unprecedented. It’s time for that to change, and if it does, perhaps his teammates will take their own cue.
When the Penguins have been at their worst this season, they’ve lacked focus or execution, made poor decisions with the puck or in defensive coverage or taken risks that were ill-conceived. Sullivan would likely love to see them support the puck better, play a bit more north-south and read and make the plays that present themselves. Nobody’s asking them to park their creativity, but in some ways going back to basics a bit wouldn’t hurt them.
That could all start with Malkin getting more pucks to the net.