Playoffs a chance for Penguins' Malkin to start over
Evgeni Malkin delivered a message Tuesday.
“I want to show my best game,” he said on the eve of his sixth Stanley Cup playoffs opener, “because this year was not great (for) me, but I have a chance to play better.”
The Penguins play the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series.
They may begin without captain Sidney Crosby (broken jaw), but his absence could be offset by the return to MVP form by their other superstar center — the one who was their best player when they won the Cup in 2009.
As the Penguins' practice at Southpointe wound down Tuesday, Malkin remained on the ice, positioned in the circle to the left of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
As other teammates fired upon Fleury, Malkin practiced his shot without a puck. He slowly simulated the motion, paying special attention to his backswing and the angle with which his curved stick blade sliced the air on his follow-through.
He did that at least three times before taking a round of five shots. None missed the net, one was stopped and three cleanly beat Fleury low and to the short side.
Not satisfied, Malkin circled twice before repeating the process — to similar results, a few rising pucks besting Fleury to the blocker side on the next round of five shots.
This continued for about 10 minutes, and at no point did Malkin's ailing left shoulder alter the speed or accuracy of his shot.
“No, Geno looked good,” Fleury said. “Like Geno, you know?”
Malkin appeared comfortable, a noticeable difference from frustration that nearly consumed him during a trying regular season. He played in only 31 games, scored just nine goals and produced merely 31 points.
That from the player who posted 11 goals and 23 points in March last season, which ended with him atop the NHL scoring table for a second time and Malkin finally winning the MVP.
A concussion and damaged left shoulder, which he said recently was weakening his shot, soured him during the shortened NHL season, but Malkin — for reasons he cannot understand — was not himself before the injuries.
He does not want to blame what proved to be an emotionally and physically taxing stint in the Kontinental Hockey League, where Malkin spent the NHL lockout playing for his Russian hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He did not enjoy the attention, two-hour practices or postgame flights that returned to Magnitogorsk at or after 7 a.m.
Malkin has offered none of these reasons as excuses for his below-standard performance with the Penguins. Still, only during his most recent return to the Penguins' lineup was his skating stride powerful, his physicality existent and his temper under control.
Malkin was not called for a penalty over those final three games. He had racked-up 36 penalty minutes in 27 prior games — a trend that carried over from his time in the KHL.
He has had the look — especially last week, right winger Jarome Iginla said — of a prize fighter trying to ratchet up his training before a championship bout.
Perhaps that is because Malkin has not shaken off the first-round knockout by Philadelphia last season. He scored only three goals and produced just eight points in six games.
He has called that loss the worst of his hockey life.
“I think (about it) a lot,” he said.