Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan delivered those three little much anticipated words Monday related to center Evgeni Malkin. Uh-huh. You know what it is.
No, not Black and Yellow.
Game. Time. Decision.
Everything points to Malkin, 35, making his delayed season debut Tuesday night when the Penguins play the Ducks in Anaheim. Which, for Penguins fans in and around Pittsburgh on Eastern time, might be, you know, worth staying up to watch.
Saying that “we’re encouraged by his progress” and that he “would anticipate” Malkin being a game time decision for Tuesday can be interpreted as Sullivan indicating that Malkin will play barring some sort of issue cropping up. That’s how “game time decision” has long played out, for the Penguins and elsewhere.
“He’s had a lot of preparation that’s gotten him to this point,” Sullivan said. “He’s had a fair amount of full participation in practice. We’ve gotten him some scrimmage time, five on five. We’ve gotten him involved with the top power play unit. So we’ve tried to check all the boxes as far as his preparation process. He’s worked extremely hard to get himself to this point.”
Of course, it seemed like a good bet that the highly skilled center would return Saturday when the Penguins played at Dallas, but he did not. Circumstances might have worked against him — practice Friday was canceled, and there was no morning skate Saturday because it was a day game.
Things seem even more conducive now, although Malkin will need to be activated off Long Term Injured Reserve before he can play, and the Penguins could need to make moves to be compliant with the salary cap.
While the Penguins never publicly put a specific timetable on Malkin’s return, it seems as if it might come in December. Sulllivan said that does not mean Malkin is behind schedule.
“We were well aware of a ballpark time frame on when he would return to play,” Sullivan said. “And he’s right in that window.”
At practice Monday, according to multiple on-site reports, Malkin skated in his normal spot, second-line center, between Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen. Malkin also practiced with the top power-play unit, along with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evan Rodrigues and Kris Letang. (On a side note, it will be interesting to see what that top unit looks like when Bryan Rust, currently in COVID-19 protocol, returns.)
Malkin is a winner of the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, two Art Ross trophies as league scoring champion, a Hart Trophy as league MVP, a Ted Lindsay Award winner as the best player as voted by his peers and a Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. He has helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cups.
He has 424 goals, 1,104 points in 940 career games.
There has been some public grumbling that Malkin might muck up the works in what has been a strong, disciplined scheme-oriented style of play this season under coach Mike Sullivan’s guidance. The inference is that Malkin can be freewheeling and go rogue, and therefore might play outside of the directives of Sullivan and perhaps influence his teammates to do the same.
That remains to be seen, although somehow Malkin has managed to flourish to this point in the NHL, including last season before he got hurt.