Goals missing, but not leadership from Pens' Malkin, Crosby
Their burden is the expectation for greatness. They are judged against legends, rivals, challengers and — sometimes — one another.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have grown accustomed to that over eight NHL seasons together as the Penguins' franchise centerpieces.
However, Crosby and Malkin are not scoring goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, at least not consistently. Crosby has gone 12 playoff games without besting an opposing goalie. Malkin's hat trick in the Round 1 finale against Columbus marked the only of his past 11 playoff games with a goal.
The Penguins trail the New York Rangers, 1-0, in a best-of-seven series that could swing wildly with Games 2 and 3 on consecutive nights at different arenas starting Sunday at Consol Energy Center.
The question for the Penguins is how Crosby and Malkin — a captain and his top alternate and the two highest-paid players — can contribute to a Stanley Cup run when they are not carrying the load like they did five years ago.
“You don't have to be the most vocal guys,” winger James Neal said. “When you're guys like them — great players who work so hard and care so much — your leadership goes without having to say anything.”
Crosby is not one to give a fiery speech. He prefers private conversations.
He had one with Malkin several weeks after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, from where Malkin returned to the Penguins “shook up,” Neal said.
“I've never really seen ‘G' like that,” Neal said. “He was down about how it happened over there in his home country. The way Sid took ‘G' aside and kind of brought him back and told him to focus on the stuff here — you saw a big change in Geno after that, and he's been himself every since.”
Crosby said he relates to Malkin in a very specific way as an elite player for whom success is measured in individual dominance that coincides with team triumph. He preferred to give Malkin space after the Olympics, and when they finally talked, it was Malkin who did most of the speaking.
That last part is consistent with how Crosby engages with teammates, whether a superstar such as Malkin or an AHL replacement player trying to find his way in the NHL.
“He gives you respect,” winger Brian Gibbons said, recalling his regular-season talks with Crosby.
“He wants to hear your thoughts, and that's what I liked about it. He told me, ‘I really want to hear what you have to say, too,' and then he just stayed and listened to me.”
Crosby, aware of his influence within the Penguins, has grown into a captain that carefully chooses battles.
Albeit briefly, he publicly broke from coach Dan Bylsma to insist that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury be granted the opportunity to play through his early struggles in October 2010. Last season, Crosby privately presented Bylsma with reasons why he believed removing right winger Pascal Dupuis from the top line in favor of Jarome Iginla could potentially negatively impact the Penguins' chemistry.
Crosby carries a commanding presence within the dressing room, but that mostly stems from his intensity on and off ice, teammate said.
“You see how much he cares, so when it's not going well, he carries it on his shoulders,” winger Tanner Glass said, comparing Crosby's leadership style to that of Vancouver's Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“Take responsibility for things, come in and put in the extra work; Sid doesn't have to say it, but you can tell when he's not happy. When things are not going well, he's not pleased. When that's the case, he's trying to fix things by getting better himself.
“You want to follow guys like that.”
Malkin is not shy about speaking up, despite his distaste for speaking in front of TV cameras. His words are not limited to jabs and barbs all in good fun, teammates said.
“He pipes up every once in a while if he thinks we're not doing something right,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said, noting that difference in Malkin from when they previously were Penguins teammates (2006-09).
“He does that on the bench and the room between periods. He's pretty intense, too. He doesn't need to say much to get everybody's attention. That's been great to see because you always want your best players to take on more of a leadership role.”
Malkin is conciliatory toward Crosby's status as “our leader, our best player,” but he also has fiercely fought to protect his captain's standing outside and inside the dressing room. The most glaring example occurred two years ago, during Malkin's lone MVP season, when he never missed an opportunity to remind members of the media — or teammates — that the Penguins were “Sid's team,” even though Crosby missed a majority of games because of a concussion.
Malkin was the Penguins' dominant force that season, as he was when they had a chance to close out Columbus in Round 1 last week. In that series' Game 6, Malkin turned a hat trick and bullied his way to six shots.
“Geno leads by example on the ice,” forward Craig Adams said. “He's sort of that relentless. … just refuses to give up on puck or a shift. That's the way he leads the best.”
Crosby is similar, Adams said.
Malkin said that shared trait with Crosby is an example of their common language — “hockey,” Malkin said — that has helped them become friends, though they otherwise share very little in common.
It was Malkin who suggested to Bylsma that he play on the top line with Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz midway through Round 1. That series was tied, 2-2, and Malkin believed he could help open up some room for himself and Crosby, who had been effectively shadowed by Columbus shutdown center Brandon Dubinsky.
Normally, Malkin said he does not find it “easy” to play with Crosby because both players are natural centers and prefer to play with the puck on their stick blades. So, after Game 5 passed without either Malkin or Crosby breaking out offensively, they had another talk.
Malkin conceded that behind the net in the offensive zone would be “Sid's spot” — an owed concession after Crosby allowed Malkin to set a precedent by being the last player to take the ice eight years ago.
Crosby and Malkin are the Penguins, but the Penguins are more than Crosby and Malkin when it comes to leadership, teammates said.
Unlike the 2009 Cup squad, which was “more vocal,” this group “is more quiet,” Scuderi said.
“That's not bad, it's just different,” Scuderi said. “Whether it's talking a lot in the locker room or just going out and doing your job, everyone just appreciates what each guy does for the team.”
So, as the external pressure builds on Crosby and Malkin, their teammates have taken it upon themselves to deflect any shots fired because of their recent rough scoring stretches.
On Saturday, neither Crosby nor Malkin spoke publicly before an optional practice at Southpointe Iceoplex. Two players did, and neither winger Jussi Jokinen nor Lee Stempniak missed an opportunity to try changing a narrative regarding Crosby's drought. Jokinen joined the Penguins about a year ago, Stempniak in March.
“I don't think anybody's really worried about Sid or Geno,” Stempniak said. “They're great players.”
Great players eventually score goals, Neal reminded.
“I know it's going to happen for Sid and G,” Neal said. “It's up to the rest of us to make sure we keep this going so that when they break out they can lead us to where we want to go.”