Ron Cook: Malkin's play for Penguins has to improve

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Last season, Evgeni Malkin was the NHL's most valuable player. This season, he would be lucky to finish in the top 10 if the Penguins did their team MVP voting before practice this morning. Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Tomas Vokoun, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Paul Martin, Pascal Dupuis, Brooks Orpik and even Kris Letang, who has missed 11 games with injuries, would finish ahead of him.

That has to change if the Penguins are going to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

Malkin has to play a lot better.

There is some good news here. The team MVP voting will not be done today. There still are nine games left before the playoffs, beginning with one Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. Malkin has time to get his game in order. He scored 50 goals last season and won the NHL's scoring title with 109 points. There's no reason he can't get on that kind of tear again. He has that much ability. Other than Crosby, he remains the most talented hockey player in the world.

That's what makes Malkin's lack of production this season so frustrating to watch and so hard to understand. He still is averaging slightly better than a point a game despite being scoreless in the past two matches against the New York Rangers. That's better than anyone on the Penguins but Crosby and Kunitz. But Malkin always is going to be held to a higher standard. He has won not one, but two NHL scoring titles. It seems almost absurd that he has just six goals, the same total as Martin and Matt Cooke and just one more than the much-maligned Tyler Kennedy. It's equally ridiculous that he has more penalty minutes (32) than points (27).

Maybe Malkin is hurt or, at least, not quite right physically. He missed four games in late February and early March with a concussion. He also missed nine games in March with a shoulder injury. Remarkably, the Penguins won all nine, a big part of their 15-game winning streak.

But Malkin has played the past five games. We have to judge him based on what we see. He hasn't been nearly good enough. He scored a goal in his first game back March 28 against the Winnipeg Jets. He had an assist in each of the next two games before going scoreless in the two against the Rangers.

It's important that Malkin gives the Penguins more. That's especially true now because of injuries to Crosby and Neal. Crosby has missed three consecutive games and most of a fourth with a broken jaw. There is no target date for his return, although everyone at Penguins headquarters likes to believe he will be ready for the playoffs. Neal was injured Friday night when he took an elbow to the head from Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto. There was no update on his condition over the weekend and it's not known how much time -- if any -- he will miss.

It's unfortunate that Neal went down because the Neal-Malkin-Jarome Iginla line was showing signs it could carry the Penguins. It had plenty of scoring chances in the four games it was together after Iginla came from Calgary in a trade. You have to think the three players were going to start to convert a higher percentage of those opportunities. Malkin didn't have a goal in those four games. Neal and Iginla had one each.

Malkin is converting just 7.5 percent of his shots, down from 14.7 last season. But that's only a part of the problem. His shots on goal per game are down to 3.1 from 4.5 last season. He is looking to pass too much. You can't score -- for the most part -- if you don't shoot the puck.

Malkin has proved he can score goals. He also has shown he can play tremendous hockey in Crosby's absence. Before Crosby's latest injury, Malkin had averaged 1.39 points per game without Crosby and 1.18 when they played together. Last season, in the 53 games that Malkin played without Crosby, he had 34 goals and 74 points.

Malkin is the biggest reason the Penguins are an astonishing 82-45-16 in the 143 games that Crosby has missed.

It's time Malkin approaches that level of production again. The Penguins are lucky they have been able to construct a 29-10 record -- best in the NHL's Eastern Conference -- despite getting so little from him. It's hard to imagine they will be so fortunate in the playoffs without getting a lot more.

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Ron Cook: 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. First Published April 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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