The hockey gods are apparently at war with the Pittsburgh Penguins. No team in recent memory has begun a season with so many long-term injuries to so many key pieces. The Penguins are up to eight injuries to primary players. Just as the Penguins got their injured players back, including Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad, the hockey gods attacked again. And again. Now, with two of the three best Penguins players out, the pressure to keep the team afloat will fall on Evgeni Malkin, and he knows it.
The full Penguins roster lasted just two periods before Patric Hornqvist was injured. Then Kris Letang. Now Sidney Crosby is out for at least six weeks, and if anecdotal evidence matters, it could be twice that pending the severity of the sports hernia which doctors in Philadelphia repaired.
This was to be the year the Penguins were younger, faster, meaner and reestablished themselves in the Eastern Conference. Instead, the hockey gods are pushing the Penguins to join the Chicago and LA dynasties by missing the playoffs within three years of their last Stanley Cup.
The fish that saves Pittsburgh just might be Evgeni Malkin.
“I understand the coach will give me more time to play. Like the last game, I made a bad play in OT, and they scored. Sometimes I should play better for sure,” Malkin said Thursday. “Everyone is looking to me right now. I’m trying to play smart.”
Malkin’s honesty and blunt assessments are often the most refreshing thing in the Penguins locker room. If you want to know the truth, Malkin will tell you, and that includes players, too. Saturday, Jared McCann said it best.
“Sid (Crosby) and Geno [sic] give it to us straight,” McCann said.
The other three Penguins centers, Bjugstad, McCann, and Teddy Blueger are not offensive dynamos. The trio’s combined average of points per game over their careers is only 1.19. Malkin’s career average is 1.17 points.
In other words, Malkin’s offensive output is equal to the other three centers combined. And now the Penguins lonely eyes turn to Malkin. He is the only core member who is healthy and the only star left in the Penguins locker room.
“Without Sid, it’s not easy but I’m ready. I’ve played with this team for a long time and it’s nothing new for me,” Malkin said as apparently the hockey gods also set off a false fire alarm while Malkin spoke. How symbolic.
“I need to be fire!” Malkin joked.
And he will need to be. The Pittsburgh Penguins season now rides on Malkin’s shoulders. The Penguins could be without Crosby for six, eight or more weeks while he recovers from sports hernia surgery. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, and Tampa Bay Lightning are currently behind the Penguins for the Eastern Conference Wild Card spots. A bad stretch now could put the Penguins into an irreversible points position.
The alarms around the Penguins season should be going off. Those other teams are pretty good, even as they’ve stumbled out of the starting gate.
Thursday, the Penguins loaded up their new top line by placing Jake Guentzel beside Malkin. Guentzel is the Penguins’ best pure offensive weapon and he popped 40 goals last season. The Penguins tried McCann with Guentzel in New York on Tuesday, but that line was dreadfully ineffective.
So, the Penguins are putting their last two unbroken eggs in one basket.
“I’m trying my best. I’ve been in this situation before, you know,” Malkin said.
As if Malkin didn’t have enough pressure on himself to resurrect his game and prove, in his words, that’s still a good player, now he has to lead the Penguins. It’s not going to be easy for anyone. The other Penguins centers will have to score more often. The Penguins defensemen will have to allow fewer chances. And Penguins goalie Matt Murray will have to stop an extra shot.
And perhaps the hockey gods will grant the Pittsburgh Penguins a reprieve sooner or later, too.