Morrow gets his turn to play with Malkin
Playing with Evgeni Malkin is not always easy.
The Penguins have had a hard time finding him a left winger this season.
Ruslan Fedotenko held that role as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, when Malkin paced the regular season and playoffs in scoring.
He said playing with Malkin is both “an honor” and a unique challenge.
“When games don't go as well as he wants them to, he tries to do too much,” Fedotenko said. “He tries to do it himself a lot. It's not a bad thing, but you expect him to be there — because that's the system — and he's already past or he's going someplace trying to get the puck himself instead of waiting and being patient.
“But overall it's never a bad thing to play with such a great player because Geno makes everybody better on his line. He's so big and skilled and fast, so a lot of the emphasis goes on him. You end up with backdoor plays or in great shooting position or getting two-on-ones. So there's that part of it, too.
“It's easy, but sometimes it's hard. That's what you have to remember.”
Malkin has missed the last eight games with a right-shoulder injury, and he may not play against Montreal at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night.
The Penguins are 10-2-0 without Malkin, the MVP last season and a two-time NHL scoring champion. That mark is not indicative of what they have lost with his absence.
Right winger James Neal has scored only two goals without Malkin this season — compared to 50 goals over the last two seasons with Malkin in the Penguins' lineup and serving as his regular center for 5-on-5 situations.
Malkin declined comment Tuesday after participating in a Penguins practice.
“When I come back I want to be great for (the) team,” he said last week. “We have a chance to win the (Stanley) Cup. I should help.”
After dominating the final two of three months he spent playing in Russia's Konintental Hockey League during the NHL lockout, Malkin had scored only five goals and produced just 24 points in 21 games with the Penguins before his latest injury.
His struggle to score goals at even strength — only two goals (and Neal has totaled eight of his 17 on the power play) — partly may be because of the lack of a fit provided by a left winger.
Next in line
From Eric Tangradi to rookie Beau Bennett — with Zach Boychuk, Matt Cooke, Tanner Glass, Dustin Jeffrey and Tyler Kennedy in between — the role has proven to be an open competition, and only Cooke has provided any consistency to the left of Malkin.
The Penguins acquired Brenden Morrow, a veteran left winger, from Dallas on Sunday.
Coach Dan Bylsma said Morrow initially will play with Malkin and Neal — at least when Malkin is fully healed.
The obvious choice to play with Malkin is Chris Kunitz, his left winger most of last season.
However, Kunitz is the NHL's second-leading scorer, trailing only his linemate and the Penguins' top center, Sidney Crosby.
Were the Penguins looking to break up the NHL's highest scoring line — Kunitz, Crosby and right winger Pascal Dupuis have combined for 48 goals and 118 points — general manager Ray Shero would have tried to acquire right winger Jarome Iginla of Calgary, not Morrow.
The top line is staying intact, Bylsma has said.
Morrow, who is 34 and never was known for his speed, could provide a lot of what Kunitz did last season, Neal suggested.
“There are a lot of comparables there,” Neal said, citing Morrow's hard-nosed willingness to battle for the puck along the boards and play in traffic near the cage.
Neal played with Morrow — though not often on the same line — in Dallas.
Defensively, on a Morrow-Malkin-Neal line, Neal would assume the “F3” role of the backtracking forward that handles lower defensive responsibilities. That was how it worked last season when Kunitz was on the line.
Finding a left winger for Malkin is not about defense, though — and there is a secret for success offensively.
“I played my game, and I think that's why I got to play with him,” Kunitz said. “I went on forechecks, got pucks. I didn't really change anything because of him.
“When he wants the puck, he yells; but his hockey IQ is so high he demands the puck by where he is skating. You're reading and reacting a little more than if you're playing a regular chip game.
“But for the most part just play your game, and Geno will make that work.”