A glum Evgeni Malkin emerged from the Penguins' training room late Sunday afternoon to face inquiring minds who wanted to know how it is that he can win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP last season and then go four consecutive games without a goal in this postseason.
"I know I'm not scoring," Malkin said, meeting the question head on. "People are a little bit maybe mad ... "
Not yet, they aren't.
Malkin gets more of a pass in this town than, say, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who will spend today and Tuesday reading and hearing how he was thoroughly outplayed by Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the Canadiens' 3-1 win in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Mellon Arena even though his teammates had a couple of bad breakdowns in front of him.
But it will get ugly for Malkin fairly quickly if his scoring drought continues.
"I haven't scored in a few games, as well. I understand what he's going through," Malkin linemate Alexei Ponikarovsky said. "I don't think he gets frustrated. But the more you're not scoring, the more you want to score."
Tuesday night in Montreal in Game 3 of a suddenly even and interesting series wouldn't be too soon for Malkin to start.
Not the least bit too soon.
It's not as if Malkin were terrible Sunday. He had three shots on goal and was fairly robbed in close by Halak late in the second period when he re-directed a centering pass from Sidney Crosby.
It's also not as if the Penguins played a terrible game. There were mistakes, to be sure. The great Crosby had his worst game of the playoffs, getting just one shot on goal, committing a bad third-period turnover that led to Mike Cammalleri's clinching goal and finishing minus-2. Defenseman Brooks Orpik looked lost on the Canadiens' first goal by Brian Gionta, neither blocking Scott Gomez's pass from behind the net nor covering Gionta. The power play went 0 for 3 with just four shots on goal after going 4 for 4 in the Penguins' 6-3 win in Game 1 Friday night.
In a game in which the Penguins outshot the Canadiens, 39-21?
"I don't think we played poorly at all," veteran winger Bill Guerin said. "I thought Montreal played exceptional defense."
Still, it's fair to expect more from Malkin. The Penguins are paying him $9 million this season for a reason. He hasn't scored a goal since Game 4 of the first-round series against Ottawa. Three of his four playoff goals have come on the power play.
The popular argument that Malkin doesn't have great wingers is fair. Ponikarovsky has been a major disappointment since joining the Penguins at the trade deadline. He has gone five games without a goal and has just one in these playoffs, although he did play his best, most energetic game Sunday with three shots on goal and three hits. Tyler Kennedy returned to the lineup after missing three games with an undisclosed injury and played on Malkin's right wing. He had five shots on goal but, like just about everybody else, couldn't solve Halak, who looked much more like the brick wall that the Washington Capitals ran into in the first round than the sieve who let in five goals before being yanked Friday night.
No matter, it is up to Malkin to find a way for his line to get the job done. That's especially true in those rare games when Crosby has a bad day. And it's even more true now that the Penguins are looking at a long stretch without superb two-way center Jordan Staal, who had a tendon in his right foot sliced by the skate of Canadiens defensemen P.K. Subban in Game 1.
"I play hard," Malkin said. "I try and play 100 percent. Just maybe it's bad luck."
There are no maybes about this, though:
It is time for Malkin to make his own luck.
Ponikarovsky offered some prudent advice, not just for Malkin and himself, but for the rest of the Penguins, who felt as if they banged their head against that Halak wall.
"You can't frustrate yourself," Ponikarovsky said. "You have to bounce back."
It's realistic to expect Malkin to do just that. He has done it before, right? Last season when he won that Smythe? He didn't score a goal in the final three games of the first-round series against Philadelphia or in the first two games of the second-round series against Washington.
You know Malkin is capable of banging in two or three Tuesday night.
"It's OK," he said. "It's not bad. We go to Montreal. I think we win the next game and my game will be better -- 100 percent."
One goes hand-in-hand with the other.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.