The Pittsburgh Penguins begin again on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. The regular season was full of struggles and adversity, impressive highs, and a near free-fall at the end. Conversely, the New York Rangers hit their stride in the final month and nearly closed a considerable gap behind the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Metro Division.
Ultimately, Carolina’s lead was too much to overcome for New York, but a strong finish only put their young team in a better position for Round One.
The Penguins’ difficulties were partly due to finding competent secondary scoring and an effective second line. It didn’t matter who side-saddled Evgeni Malkin. Head coach Mike Sullivan couldn’t find consistent production. Rickard Rakell and Malkin showed flashes of productivity. Otherwise, Kasperi Kapanen, Evan Rodrigues, Jason Zucker, and not even Bryan Rust found a good rhythm with Malkin.
Or with Jeff Carter.
The playoffs are a second chance to wash away the lingering aftertaste of a bad second half. For Rodrigues, it offers a chance to prove the beginning months of the season were not a fluke. For Kapanen, it’s a chance to undo a career-worst season in which he scored just 11 goals, was a healthy scratch for a pair of games, and otherwise was a non-factor.
And for Evgeni Malkin…his future is uncertain. Sullivan called his even-strength play “sporadic.”
“In terms of the Rangers, it’s a whole different ballgame now. It’s ‘watch your video and dial it in.’ The playoffs are different than the regular season,” Rodrigues said on Friday. “It’s your mentality that is different in terms of being strong on pucks and not being dangerous on the blue lines. And, you know, I think this team has the pedigree to know what it takes in the playoffs, and it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”
After a spectacular first half in which Evan Rodrigues scored 15 goals in the 46 games before the All-Star Game, he scored just four in the 36 games. Malkin’s return in mid-January seemed to disrupt Rodrigues’s season more than any other player. Before Malkin, Rodrigues was sometimes the second-line center, sometimes top-line RW, and sometimes second-line LW.
He took advantage of his opportunities but did not flash that aggressive hunt for goals for a few months; not until the season’s final game when he chased his 20th goal. He showed the hands and offensive instincts that were missing for months. He hit the crossbar with a rocket slapper, tried the spin-o-rama move in the second period, and had a Grade-A one-timer in the third.
Rodrigues does not have a contract for next season.
“I definitely was (aware of needing one more goal for 20). That definitely would have been nice to get 20,” Rodrigues said through a combination of a big grin and a sheepish smile. “I had my looks. Yeah. It would have been nice having.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins need a lot more of that Rodrigues. He could add a zero on his next contract if he performs well in Round One. Or he could be forever relegated to the versatile bargain players bin.
If only the Sidney Crosby line is scoring, the New York Rangers will be more than the Penguins can handle.
Kasperi Kapanen playing a competent NHL game would go a long way for the Penguins, too. Perhaps no player in the league has gone as far afield as Kapanen. It seems a lifetime ago that Sullivan was pushing Kapanen to be an elite player.
“And Kappy is taking that (challenge) to heart. He’s made a concerted effort to focus and make a commitment on his conditioning…conditioning involves a number of different things. It’s lifestyle choices. It’s making sure you eat the right food, get the proper rest, hydrate properly,” Sullivan said back in October. “You know, there’s a lot involved. It’s not just when you show up at the rink (that) you’ve got to work hard in the gym or you’re going to work hard on the ice…It’s a way of life. And I think Kappy has really embraced that.”
Neither side imagined an 11-goal season and a tenuous spot in the lineup.
“It’s not going to last forever,” Sidney Crosby said of the Pittsburgh Penguins uncertain future with Malkin and Kris Letang. It was the biggest admission of the season from any of the Penguins upper-crust.
In addition to the uneven play, the more significant issue laid before the Penguins was Malkin’s lack of impact. It can’t be churched up, spun, or ignored. Malkin returned from serious knee surgery, which isn’t easy at 35-years-old. The player who scored 74 points in 55 games in 2019-20 hasn’t been seen beyond a few flashes.
“We want to prove we still belong at the dance,” Kris Letang said on Sunday.
Well said. What happened in April stays in April if May is a different tune. Great athletes are often motivated by their legacy. The next two weeks could be the final imprint of Malkin’s legacy. Because this could be the last hurrah, the final ride…the end of Crosby-Malkin, these playoffs have special importance.
A whimpering defeat will leave a lasting impression. Or they could be one more story told for years to come.