If you pay attention to the way Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talks about his team, you can probably close your eyes and hear him say the team is trying to put any given player in the best position to be successful. Evgeni Malkin seems to be in that particular spotlight right now, with Colin White on his right wing, Drew O’Connor on his left flank.
The Penguins, after a disastrous two-loss trip west, have practiced with that configuration as their second line the past two days. It seems logical that that they will go with that look Friday when the Florida Panthers visit, the first of back-to-back games before an extended All-Star Game break.
Sullivan called White the “defensive conscience” of that line, while O’Connor, who has already played some with Malkin, might be termed the facilitator of the trio.
“Just try to play the same way,” O’Connor said of playing with Malkin and White. “The last couple games didn’t go great for us as a team. Me personally, I think I can bring a lot more than I did the last couple (games). We’ll look to have two strong games here before the break.”
Malkin has been magical at times this season, but he is coming off a couple major gaffes in losses at Vegas, where defensive lapses helped lead to at least one Golden Knights goal, and Arizona, where he mishandled a pass from Kris Letang and it ended up being a pivotal own-goal.
O’Connor – who had no points in the two losses out west, and has one point, a goal, in his past five games — went so far as to take some responsibility for a Malkin bounce-back.
“He knows how to respond. I think we all are looking to respond,” O’Connor said. “He’s a really gifted player, so it’s up to the players on his line to help him out a little bit more.
“If he’s struggling, part of the reason is that we’re not helping him out enough. When we’re doing the right things, we can help him out a little bit more, too.”
Malkin, who declined to speak with reporters Thursday, ranks third on the team with 38 points, including 15 goals, and he leads the team with 12 power-play goals despite some extreme inconsistency with that aspect of the Penguins’ game.
But there are those moments where he might look more like a 37-year-old trying to maintain his game than Evgeni Malkin, future Hall of Famer.
White, who got elevated to that line Wednesday, said he doesn’t know Malkin well enough to judge whether Malkin showed signs in practice the past couple days that he is ready to bounce back this weekend.
White has played 295 NHL games, but just three for the Penguins – including the ones at Vegas and Arizona — after spending most of this season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. White has no points with the Penguins after registering five goals, 10 points with Wilkes-Barre.
White agreed with Sullivan’s assessment of what he can provide defensively playing with Malkin.
“For me, it’s just playing a good, strong defensive game, and that’s going to lead to offensive chances. Creating turnovers and things like that, just trying to open up some ice,” he said.
“In the (offensive) zone, it’s just getting to the net, getting to those dirty areas just to create some chaos in front of the net. You know how skilled some of those guys are, and it’s just constantly trying to open up space for them to be able to make plays.”
White on Friday will be facing his former club. He spent just one season with the Panthers, but that included a run last spring to the Stanley Cup final, where Florida fell to Vegas.
Still, White said, he gained “a lot of confidence” playing the first half of the season in the AHL.
He also brings some perspective on what a talented team can accomplish, even with an inconsistent regular season.
“Last year (Florida) didn’t get in (the playoffs) until the last two games or something,” he said. “Throughout the season, anything can happen. It’s a long year. There’s ups and downs.”