Penguins: With Crosby out, Malkin on the spot
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Precedent is dogging Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins' forward is having a second consecutive below-par season in terms of production, and he finds himself in a situation where he could be expected to carry the club.
Malkin is second on the team with 15 goals and third in points with 35 going into the game today at Boston. He has been centering the top line between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis in the absence of NHL-leading scorer Sidney Crosby, who has a concussion.
"Of course, Sid is the leader of this team, but I don't have pressure," Malkin said Friday after practice at Southpointe. "We have 20 guys who can score, and we have a great team. No pressure for me. I just play my game."
A noble attitude, but Malkin has just one point, an assist, and a plus-minus rating of minus-5 over the four games without Crosby, who has no timetable for returning. The Penguins are 1-3 in those games.
Game: Penguins at Boston Bruins, 1:08 p.m. today, TD Garden, Boston.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Tim Thomas for Bruins.
Penguins: Have 29 road points, among best in NHL. ... Have league's best penalty-killing, 87.4 percent. ... Are most- penalized team in league, 16.1 minutes a game.
Bruins: Have won 3 games in row. ... Have scored on just 3 of past 26 power-play chances (11.5 percent). ... Defenseman Zdeno Chara has 3 goals, 7 points in past 7 games.
Of note: Boston is 23-1-4 when it has had a lead at any point in the game.
More to the point, Malkin has established himself as someone who steps in brilliantly when Crosby is out. That became clear when Crosby got a high ankle sprain in January 2008.
In a run of 21 games then without Crosby, Malkin had 14 goals, 36 points. Embedded in that stretch was a 10-game points streak in which he had 10 goals, 24 points and eight multiple-point games.
Malkin was not just posting numbers; he was dominating games with his stickhandling, skating and playmaking.
"I'm trying to play the same," Malkin said.
If Malkin can flirt with the way he played the second half of the 2008-09 season, the Penguins should thrive because that spurt launched an incredible period of Malkin's career.
He finished the 2007-08 season, his second in the NHL, with 103 points and was the runner-up in league scoring and voting for the Hart Trophy as MVP. He followed with 24 points in 20 playoff games as the Penguins advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
In 2008-09, Malkin won the league scoring title with 113 points, again was a finalist for the Hart, led all players in the postseason with 36 points in 24 games as he helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Since then, Malkin has 112 points in 107 regular-season games. Still more than a point per game, but not the level he reached starting with that stretch with Crosby out.
Malkin's best game of these four without Crosby was the most recent, a 5-2 win Wednesday at Montreal. He had no points to show for it, though.
"I think he would like to be on the score sheet more," coach Dan Bylsma said.
"He was a part of a lot of the success we had, both five-on-five and on the power play. He was around the net, he was going to the net on a lot of our power-play opportunities. He was good five-on-five. He was good defensively."
As frequently as Bylsma fiddles with line combinations, Malkin never played much at even strength with Kunitz or Dupuis, who are Crosby's regular wingers.
"He's winning his battles," Dupuis said. "He made some great plays last game."
Kunitz offered that Malkin was on the score sheet parenthetically after the win in Montreal because he helped set up plays but touched the puck one person removed from earning an assist.
Malkin has 16 shots over the past four games.
"When he has confidence with the puck, he can make special plays," Kunitz said. "The area of his game that he exploits is skating and making those moves right above the blue line. It's something he's still doing."
Malkin has played a lot on the wing this season, and he more than likely will go back to the right side on a second line centered by Jordan Staal when Crosby comes back. But he said he is completely comfortable at his natural position, center.
"I don't change my game; I just change my position a little bit," Malkin said. "I'm not trying to do too much, just play my game and try to help my wingers -- the last game we played very well.
"Maybe just a little bit better timing and maybe play harder, but I'm not changing a lot."
His teammates don't want to heap undue expectations on Malkin.
"We have a deep team," Dupuis said.
"It shouldn't be one guy's job to fill in. It should be everybody. Obviously, Sid is a big part of the puzzle. Everybody's got to chip in a little more."
That likely is true, but, for Malkin, there always will be that standard he set when he so ably filled in for Crosby before.
First Published January 15, 2011 12:00 am