Consistent Evgeni Malkin quietly producing as Sidney Crosby grabs headlines
January 8, 2017 12:00 AM
Evgeni Malkin, left, has 16 goals and 43 points so far this season.
By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby’s projected goal total sits in the low 60s, and he’s regularly flirting with 20-year-old records. Justin Schultz had six goals and 18 points in December alone, the best month for a Penguins defenseman this side of Sergei Zubov, while barging his way into the All-Star Game conversation.
Too bad for Evgeni Malkin. All he did was lead the NHL in total points (21) and assists (14), walking away empty-handed in only four of 15 games while ascending to the top of the NHL scoring race before last week’s break.
“I feel like I have a lot of energy,” Malkin said. “I work hard every game and want to be the top forward every game.”
Malkin has been the Penguins’ top forward for a large chunk this season, even if Crosby’s goal-scoring binge has generated more headlines, some of that stemming from his stature league-wide. But Malkin, his own penalty-taking spree at the start of the season aside, has found a way to rewind his game to levels last seen in 2011-12 and previous to that.
In short, it’s the best Geno we’ve seen in some time.
The biggest thing that stands out, Malkin’s teammates will tell you, has been his consistency. He’s bringing it every shift. Even — absurd as it may seem — on the defensive end. The longest he’s gone without scoring has been a grand total of two games.
“He plays the right way on both sides of the puck,” linemate Patric Hornqvist said. “This year he’s been really good for us. I think that started last year when [coach Mike Sullivan] took over. Sully always says you have to play the right way to get chances. Usually the best defense turns into the best offense. The way he’s playing right now, it’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be a part of.”
Malkin has 16 goals and 43 points in 38 games entering today’s 5 p.m. start against the Lightning. Over 82 games, that’s a 35-goal and 93-point pace. It would represent Malkin’s most productive season since he had 50 goals and 109 points in 2011-12.
There have been 11 games this season where Malkin hasn’t scored, 28.9 percent. That’s the best for him since finding the scoresheet in 45 of 60 games in 2013-14. In 2011-12, Malkin scored in 60 of 75, which means he went without a point a career-low 20 percent of the time.
“He’s so hard to handle with his size, with his hands, the way he sees the ice,” Crosby said. “He’s been so consistent. That’s been a big part of our success in the month of December. Him making the difference on different plays or different games, whether it be setting up plays or putting the puck in himself.”
Why’s it working?
A few factors paint the picture of Malkin’s consistency in 2016-17.
First, health. Malkin injured his left elbow March 11 of last season in a 3-2 win at Columbus. He was never fully healthy and had to play with a brace. Despite not having offseason surgery, the elbow has not bothered Malkin this season, and he’s not wearing a brace.
“I forget [that ever happened],” Malkin said. “Nothing sore, nothing bad. It’s good. No brace anymore. Last year was so hard to play with a big, huge brace. Now it’s just amazing, no brace, nothing’s sore, I’m just excited to play.”
Second was Malkin’s offseason. He’s 30 now and still draws plenty of laughs when referring to himself as old. Self-deprecation aside, Malkin tweaked his offseason routine to focus more on leg work. He has also started working more with Andy O’Brien, who’s the Penguins director of sport science and performance.
“I had a good summer,” Malkin said. “Always if you work hard in the summer, it helps you in the season. I worked with Andy a little bit. He gave me a program. I started to work on my legs a little bit more. When you’re old, you need to work a little bit more on your legs. I feel pretty good.”
As he has previously admitted, Malkin was angry — though he didn’t use that word — at himself following a lackluster performance in the World Cup of Hockey. He felt he didn’t play with the puck enough. Without falling down the analytics rabbit hole, the puck-possession differences have been night and day.
Malkin has also cut it out when it comes to penalties. After accumulating 36 penalty minutes in his first 20 games, he has just 10 in his last 18. It’s a little tough to score when you’re in the penalty box.
Bigger picture adjustments
Former Penguin Ruslan Fedotenko was in town Saturday for the reunion of the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team and planned to dine with Malkin later in the day.
Fedotenko, now retired and living in Tampa, has noticed several changes in Malkin, one of them his command of English and his willingness to use it.
“He was pretty quiet in English,” Fedotenko said during Saturday’s practice. “He was pretty loud in Russian, and outspoken. I was like, ‘Geno, nobody understands you except me and [Sergei Gonchar].’ ”
Also, maturity. Malkin talked Friday about how being 7-month-old Nikita’s dad has changed him. No more restaurants. No more quiet time at home. A lot of chasing the ever-mobile Nikita. Fedotenko can see fatherhood having an effect, too.
“He had that personality, goofy, like a kid, and now he’s a dad,” Fedotenko said. “He definitely matured. He’s still kind of kept that persona between us and how he jokes and everything else, but obviously he knows when it’s mature time, and when he needs to be more grown-up.”
On the ice, Malkin has seemingly adjusted how he goes about his business. At least in terms of not forcing things and playing a smarter game.
“He’s not trying to do too much himself,” Fedotenko said. “Sometimes I remember the team would be struggling and he’s just trying to do too much himself. He learned how he can make other players even better. He’s so good, he makes all the players around him even better. As long as he sticks with that, he’s so effective. He learned how to use that on a consistent basis.”
Apparently scoring isn’t the only thing Malkin has been doing with regularity.
Jason Mackey: email@example.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
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