Commentary: Malkin's line must kick back into high gear

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Those discussions on how the Penguins would match up with the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final, quite understandably, have been put on hold. The Philadelphia Flyers are alive and, perhaps quite literally, well for Game 5 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final tomorrow at Mellon Arena.

Despite being down, 3-1, in games, Philadelphia has been a formidable opponent. The Flyers will be more formidable if defensemen Kimmo Timonen, who hasn't played in the series because of a blood clot in his left ankle, and Braydon Coburn, who has missed the past two games after being struck near the left eye with a puck, dress for the game, which is a possibility.

No question the return of the two defensemen -- likely to be game-day decisions -- will inject the Flyers with a large dose of momentum as they try to continue their season.

But the Penguins have other thoughts. They need to get their own house in order. If they do that, their superior talent will rule in this series, regardless of which players the Flyers dress. While the Penguins have played superbly for the most part in their 13 playoff games, there has been a slight glitch in their style of late.

What had been the team's best line -- Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora -- has gone absent. Without the Malkin line performing at or near its highest capability, the Penguins have no skill advantage. After all, what kind of advantage does a supposed skill line give a team when it has scored one goal and three assists in the past three games?

This is the same line that carried the team in the latter stages of the regular season and through the first 10 games of the playoffs.

Seems hard to believe that about a week ago Malkin was being talked about as possibly the best player in the game. He was mentioned frequently as a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the MVP of the playoffs. While Sidney Crosby struggled to score, Malkin was a goal-scoring machine.

But look what he has done lately. His only point in the past three games was the second assist on Malone's score that gave the Penguins a two-goal lead midway through the third period of Game 3. He has managed only seven shots on goal in those three games, compared to 10 in the final game against the New York Rangers. He has been charged with eight giveaways.

There's no Conn Smythe candidacy in those numbers.

"He hasn't been productive like he was in the past," said coach Michel Therrien in a conference call with the media yesterday. "He's going to have to find a way next game to make sure he's going to be productive like he [was] at the playoffs start."

Malkin had two goals against Ottawa, four against New York and two in the first game against Philadelphia.

It was suggested to Therrien that perhaps Malkin was tired. He wore down in the playoffs last year, failing to score a goal in five games against Ottawa, and now, in the third round, he is involved in an even longer season.

Therrien didn't buy it.

"Yes, it is a long season. He had been through that last year. I think he's got more experience this year to play through the schedule that we're facing in the NHL, plus the playoffs. I could understand fatigue would be a factor if we would have played seven games in every round. I think we've had some quality time for rest. And because of the amount of games that we played in the playoffs, I don't think fatigue is a factor."

The Flyers are, though.

"They did a good job of checking him. It's not sometimes a matter of the players not being productive. Sometimes, you've got to give credit to the other team."

As Malkin has fallen off so have his linemates, who feed off his remarkable skill.

Malone, a free agent at the end of the season, was in the midst of a career year. There had been talk he had priced himself out of the Penguins' pay range with his level of play. But his only point in the past three games was the goal in Game 3.

After a slow start, Sykora had become the quintessential NHL sniper who profited greatly by playing alongside Malkin. He has one assist in three games.

A three-game slump is not a cause for great alarm. But, when it's compared to how the players performed in the previous 10 games, it looks a bit astonishing.

In those 10 games, Malkin had eight goals and nine assists, Malone three goals and seven assists, Sykora five goals and seven assists.

If they can revert to that form, or just come close, the Flyers will be on vacation and those discussions about the Penguins in the final will be legitimate.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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