In a world of social distancing, face masks, and billions of robocalls pounding a quarantined public, it may tough to remember the Evgeni Malkin saga last summer. The Pittsburgh Penguins pouted and assumed their talent to an ignominious four-game defeat by the New York Islanders. One star player asked out, and the Penguins granted that wish, while Evgeni Malkin teetered on the same ledge.
This season was world different than last. Instead of rancor, the Penguins rode Malkin, and he galloped like a thoroughbred in his prime. Malkin is also embracing the NHL return to play this summer.
“Geno’s been terrific through this whole thing, even in informal skates and then through this training camp,” Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi said Sunday. “Geno has been amazing with how he’s really taken a leadership role in this. It’s been really fun to watch.”
Malkin had much to prove this season. At 33-years-old, he is reaching the point when skills and numbers fade. His performance last season did little to settle that worry.
Last season, the Penguins did not fight too hard to keep winger Phil Kessel in the fold. Whether Kessel asked the Penguins to trade him as Jim Rutherford has asserted or the Penguins wanted to move him along, as Kessel seemed to indicate in his debut press conference with the Arizona Coyotes, is irrelevant to the result.
Kessel was quickly gone, then Malkin and the Penguins organization faced that breakup moment.
Moment of Truth
Our league sources indicated the Penguins had at least one legitimate suitor, who was willing to offer a tidy package for the generational talent.
The season of discontent and perhaps the Penguins organization reached the tipping point with Malkin trade rumors, but both sides quickly realized they were better off with each other.
Last season, Malkin admitted he was not at his best. The season was full of frustration and friction with the Penguins coaches. And so began the re-fired Evgeni Malkin. From a long summer workout, which produced six-pack abs, to a torrid pace, which started when he returned to the lineup in early November after a month-long injury.
Now, you’re caught up, and the stage is set. This season, Malkin was his early vintage. Like, the 2012 Hart Trophy-winning vintage.
“I want back at my highest level. I want to play at my top level, I want to show everyone I’m not done,” Malkin said on the eve of the new season. “I’m excited to show everything – power skating, stickhandling, playing in the (defensive) zone. My top-level for sure.”
That he did.
“I am fire,” he laughed as a fire alarm went off in the locker room back in November. He laughed. We laughed. And he was correct.
Malkin was well more than a point-per-game player as he poured in 74 points (25g, 49a) in just 55 games. Extrapolated over a full season, that is 110 points. Yeah, Malkin was that good. Perhaps he was even better than at any point in the last eight years, as he skated end-wall to end-wall and his line filled the net.
Top-line center Sidney Crosby was out for two months with a sports hernia, so Malkin willed the Penguins forward.
The Malkin Advantage
Evgeni Malkin won the 2009 Conn Smythe trophy, but injuries subdued his playoff performances as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. Malkin essentially played with one arm because of a wrist injury just before the 2016 playoffs.
All signs point to this again being a year when the NHL sees the post-season Malkin in full bloom. If Malkin is at his best, there isn’t a team in the Eastern Conference which can match the Penguins top two centers.
The top four teams in the Eastern Conference (Boston, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Washington), which will play a round-robin tournament, should be so lucky as the Penguins.
David Krejci in Boston and Kevin Hayes in Philadelphia are average point-producers who are more adept at defending. Tampa Bay has untested 23-year-old Anthony Cirelli, who had only 44 points (16g, 28a) in 68 games as their second line pivot.
The only center in the east who can match the Penguins second-line center is Washington with long-time foe Nick Backstrom.
In the Qualifying Round, the Montreal Canadiens may, or may not, have Max Domi as their second liner. Domi is a reliable center, but no one will put him in Malkin’s category. Domi is still deciding whether he will enter the NHL return to play. He has type 1 diabetes and is in a higher-risk category for severe effects from COVID-19.
If the Penguins dispatch Montreal, they’ll face one of the top-four teams in the Eastern Conference, above.
A healthy and determined Evgeni Malkin will go a long way for the Penguins, as no other team in the east can match that Penguins advantage.
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