Sometimes, coaching is more than just bumping a Max Talbot up to the second line and making a Petr Sykora a healthy scratch. Sometimes, coaching is finding time for a little man talk with an Evgeni Malkin.
So it was with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma during the team's morning skate Wednesday before Game 3 against the Washington Capitals. Bylsma didn't have to tell Malkin that he needed more -- much more -- from him. Malkin is no fool. He knew he didn't play well in the Game 1 and 2 losses. Bylsma merely reminded Malkin that he wasn't the first great player to hit a bad bump in the playoff road and that it wasn't too late to accelerate his game again.
"I know he mentioned [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Steve] Yzerman to him," Penguins general manager Ray Shero was recalling yesterday after an optional team practice at Southpointe. "I think Datsyuk went something like 27 playoff games without a goal. He was so bad that Detroit wanted to get rid of him ... ."
That was a couple of Stanley Cups ago, of course.
"Hey, it happens," Shero said. "But the great players usually find a way to make a difference."
So it was with Malkin in the Penguins' 3-2 overtime win in Game 3. Teammates noticed a difference in him even before the puck was dropped. After the two losses in D.C., in which fellow superstars Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals looked as if they were playing a different game and embarrassed him with their brilliant performances, Malkin moped. But now? In those tense minutes before a game the Penguins absolutely had to win? "He was in a much better mood. I think he knew he was going to be better," winger Matt Cooke said.
Shero saw it practically from the start. "[Malkin] just turned it up. He started winning battles for the puck. I'm thinking, 'OK, he's really playing now.' "
Soon, everybody in Mellon Arena could tell Malkin wasn't the same player who had done so little in the first two games. The big crowd can take some credit. In a nice show of loyal support, it chanted "Ge-no! Ge-no!" early and often during the game. "Obviously, the fans recognized right away that we need this guy to win," Shero said. "Sometimes, a little love doesn't hurt."
The Capitals were the last to get the message that this was going to be Malkin's night, not necessarily Crosby's, certainly not Ovechkin's. Malkin had the old building throbbing by winning those puck battles that Shero mentioned. He fairly danced through the defense, firing nine shots at goaltender Simeon Varlamov, who, thanks to his own extraordinary play, somehow was able to stop eight. Malkin's third-period goal put an emphatic end to his scoring drought, which was approaching six games, an absurd number for a player of his prodigious talent.
"He turned it up, for sure," Crosby said.
"He was at a different level," Cooke said. "We're a better team when he's at that level."
Better than the Capitals, that's for sure.
Listen, the Penguins did plenty right to get this win. Bylsma's decision to put Talbot on the second line in Sykora's spot with Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko worked out fabulously. "Max brings energy," Crosby said. Certainly, Talbot contributed to a strong forechecking presence, enabling the Penguins to spend gobs of time in the offensive zone, finally take advantage of an already suspect Capitals defense that has been further weakened by an injury to John Erskine, hold a 42-23 edge in shots and draw seven Washington penalties. The Penguins also started to win the physical battles, outhitting the Capitals, 44-31. Fedotenko was especially ferocious with eight hits.
But clearly, the biggest difference between the two losses and this win was Malkin. The Penguins will win the series -- maybe even in six games by sweeping the next three -- if he continues to play with that passion.
Unfortunately, that's not a given.
Crosby never takes a night off. Never. Nor does Ovechkin. But Malkin can frustrate almost beyond belief at times. It's not as if he was horrible in Games 1 and especially 2. But he didn't play like a star, that's for sure. He didn't make that difference the way great players do. He almost seemed content to step aside and allow Crosby and Ovechkin to hog hockey's brightest stage. It was inexcusable, really.
Not Wednesday night, though.
Not after his man talk with Bylsma.
Now, Malkin must prove he can do it again. His sublime performance in Game 3 won't mean anything unless he does it again tonight in Game 4. The Penguins' thrilling win won't mean much unless they win again tonight.
I'm thinking Bylsma should make it a point to see Malkin again at the skate this morning to make sure he's amped.
Can't hurt, can it?
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .