Can Malkin get back into overdrive?

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DETROIT -- In a two-week period," a good friend was saying yesterday, "Evgeni Malkin has gone from Conn Smythe to Con Job."

I'm not too proud to steal a wonderful line, especially when it so aptly describes the Penguins' edgy situation as they head into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final tonight against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Penguins can't beat the Red Wings unless Malkin wakes the heck up.

Malkin's funk is at five games and counting. The Penguins were able to take out the inferior and injury-wracked Philadelphia Flyers in five games despite getting just one goal and one assist from him in the final four. But the Red Wings are a much tougher nut to crack. They proved that by thoroughly outplaying the Penguins Saturday night and winning Game 1, 4-0.

Is it just me or was Malkin invisible?

Other than when he failed to clear a puck in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, contributing heavily to the Red Wings' second goal?

C'mon, one shot on net?

The Detroit domination -- especially in the second and third periods -- was so overwhelming that it forced Penguins coach Michel Therrien to make major line changes for Game 2 by bumping up left wing Ryan Malone to play with Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa and putting Max Talbot in Malone's spot with Malkin and Petr Sykora. Some will argue the moves are a sign of panic, but they make sense because Malone gives Crosby a better finisher than Pascal Dupuis and Talbot has more speed than Malone and will provide energy that Therrien hopes will get Malkin going.

"I like Max's intensity," Therrien said. "He drives people. I think that can be contagious."

It had better be contagious with Malkin. He clearly hasn't been the same player since Game 2 against the Flyers when his horrendous giveaway led to a short-handed goal by Mike Richards that, on many nights and against a better team, would have led to a loss. It's difficult to believe this is happening to Malkin because he had played at such a high level to that point of the playoffs. Through Game 1 of the Flyers series, he had eight goals and nine assists in 10 games and was a favorite to win the Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP.

... from Conn Smythe to Con Job. So what gives?

Malkin, in a brief interview yesterday after practice at Joe Louis Arena, said he was nervous in Game 1. He also said he was "a little bit tired."

I'll buy that first explanation, but not the second. That "tired" nonsense sounds like a lame excuse.

"You guys don't understand how hard it is," Sykora said, rushing to Malkin's defense. "He comes from Europe, where we only play until the end of March. This is his first playoff run. I was so tired during my first playoff run that I couldn't even see on the ice."

It's admirable that Sykora had Malkin's back, but here's why I'm not buying it: This hasn't exactly been a grueling playoffs for the Penguins. They swept the Ottawa Senators, then had eight days off. They beat the New York Rangers in five games, then had four days off. They took out the Flyers, then had five days off.

"The emotion of the Stanley Cup finals should keep you going anyway," said Therrien, another one who isn't much for weak excuses.

Still, Therrien met with Malkin yesterday to "encourage" him. He reminded Malkin of how he carried the Penguins with 20 goals and 26 assists in 28 games after Crosby was out with a high-ankle sprain in January.

Therrien also might have mentioned how Malkin played like the world's best player against the Senators and Rangers.

"I told him we still believe in him," Therrien said. "He's been a big part of our success and he will be again. We need him.

"A player like this, you've got to be positive with him. He feeds on the positive."

Talbot figured to work on Malkin more last night. The two are roommates.

"He's a player. He's going to bounce back. Trust it," Talbot said. "He's proud of being a great player. He wants to be the guy."

Tonight would be a nice time for Malkin to show that again.

Even with Malone going to Crosby's line, that unit figures to have a tough time because it will be matched against the Red Wings' top defensive pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom -- an All-World player -- and Brian Rafalski and their top checking line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datysuk and Tomas Holmstrom. Zetterberg and Datysuk aren't just great offensive players; they are two of the three finalists for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top defensive forward.

The Crosby and Datysuk lines mostly nullified each other in Game 1 and could be a wash for as long as the series lasts.

The big difference in the first game was Malkin's line against the Detroit trio of Kris Draper, Mikael Samuelsson and Dallas Drake. The Red Wings got two even-strength goals from Samuelsson. The Penguins got nothing from Malkin's bunch.

That can't last if the Penguins are going to win the Cup.

Talbot knows.

"Our second line has to dominate their second line," he said. "Our line has to put the puck in the net."

That's a lot to put on Malkin's shoulders.

Here's hoping, for the Penguins' sake, that he got his rest last night.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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