The Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 2 line was a driving, sometimes dominant, force in their offense during the early weeks of this season.
Its members — Evgeni Malkin, Reilly Smith and Rickard Rakell — combined to record 13 goals and 14 assists in the first 10 games, despite getting a modest contribution of just three assists from Rakell during that stretch.
At the time, that seemed like a serious slump for Rakell. But if he’d put up points at a similar pace during the past seven games (Spoiler alert: He hasn’t), Rakell would have been the second-most productive member of that unit, which has managed just two goals and five assists in those games.
Malkin accounted for both goals — one of them an empty-netter against Vegas Sunday — and three assists, while Smith and Rakell had just one assist each. (Radim Zohorna replaced Rakell for the Penguins’ 4-2 loss at Carolina last Saturday, and did not get a point.)
Although the consistent output from Malkin’s line didn’t always translate to a victory — the Penguins were 4-6 in those 10 games — the team’s record didn’t detract from the impressive nature of that unit’s productivity. Or from the benefits that the Pittsburgh Penguins could accrue if it can resume manufacturing offense the way it did until the early days of November.
“Obviously, we rely on that line to make an impact for us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “So we’re hopeful here that we can get them back on track, because for probably the first 10 games of the season, they were very impactful with their overall play.”
Why that changed a few weeks ago, when the line seemed to slip out of synch, is a bit of a mystery, although Rakell has usually been invisible and Malkin has reverted to more of an east-west game than he was playing earlier.
“It’s only been the last handful of games that they haven’t had as much of an impact on the game, 5-on-5,” Sullivan said. “I think a lot of it just boils down to small details and collective play, as a group. Sometimes, they get a little bit disconnected, as a line. It’s more when they don’t have the puck, in trying to get it back, whether it be on a forecheck, things of that nature.
“It requires that everybody do their job and there needs to be a cooperative effort there in order to get the puck back. That gives that line an opportunity to do what they do best. So that’s one area where I think (Malkin’s) line can improve. We’ve certainly talked to them about that, showed them some examples of how they can get better.”
Precisely what Malkin’s line will look like when the Penguins face the New York Rangers Wednesday at 7:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena remains to be seen, because Sullivan announced after practice Tuesday that Rakell will be out “longer term” due to an unspecified upper-body injury.
It’s not known who will move into Rakell’s spot with Malkin and Smith. Fourth-line center Noel Acciari was plugged into that role during practice, but won’t be deployed there against New York.
Sullivan mentioned Vinnie Hinostroza, Jansen Harkins and Alex Nylander as being among a “handful” of candidates for that duty. Hinostroza, the only one of those three currently on the major-league roster, is probably the favorite … assuming he isn’t needed on the No. 1 line, where he stood in for Bryan Rust during Tuesday’s workout.
Rust left the ice before practice began and is being evaluated for an unspecified lower-body injury, Sullivan said.
Although Rust has gotten an excellent start — his nine goals tie Malkin for second-most on the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he’s fifth on the team in points with 16 — having Malkin and Smith mesh the way they did when the season began could help to mitigate the damage if Rust has a lost-time injury.
Smith noted that he scored on 25 percent of his shots (six goals on 24 shots) during the first 10 games, a pace that, as he noted, “isn’t really sustainable.”
He said the focus for the line must be “to just keep playing ‘north,’ ” and that in order to end his personal drought, he will emphasize taking shots when they’re available and not passing up any scoring opportunities that develop.
“Your mentality is to try to keep the status quo,” Smith said. “You have to throw everything against the wall and, hopefully, something sticks.”