As much as anyone, All-Star Malkin's steady game has helped Penguins stay afloat
When Penguins center Evgeni Malkin scans the ice here at the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, he'll see plenty of players with traits worth admiring.
Patrick Kane's nasty wrist shot. Jamie Benn's overwhelming power-forward game. Erik Karlsson's offensive artistry.
There is one attribute of a particular all-star that impresses him most, however, and it's a surprising choice for a player with a personal highlight reel as eye-popping as Malkin's.
It's the consistency of center Jonathan Toews.
“Players like Toews, they play at the same level for the last 10 years,” Malkin said of the Chicago Blackhawks star who on Thursday opted out of the All-Star Game because of illness. “It's very important. They're captains. Everyone looks to those guys. I'm focused on that, being on top every game.”
Penguins defensive development coach Sergei Gonchar isn't surprised Malkin has made consistency his chief goal. A teammate while Malkin was breaking into the league and a confidant since, Gonchar has seen his countryman's game mature dramatically during the past decade.
“He learned how not to get frustrated,” Gonchar said. “A lot of times, with a player like this, the expectation is so high and he puts a lot of pressure on himself. He's learned how not to get frustrated if the result is not there.”
Malkin's maturity has paid dividends for the Penguins this season.
Every one of his teammates not named Marc-Andre Fleury has fallen into a slump. Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist. Every one of them.
Not Malkin. He has been the steady, consistent force that's kept an oft-teetering Penguins season from careening into a ditch.
“He's recognized the responsibility he has,” Gonchar said. “He always wants to win. But maybe having grown up, that want to win now comes with the responsibility of having teammates look up to him.”
After losing 15 of their final 20 games to end last season, the Penguins were outclassed on a two-game road trip to Dallas and Arizona to open the season and then dropped the home opener to Montreal. The future looked bleak.
On Oct. 15, Malkin scored early in the second period to give the Penguins their first lead of the season in a 2-0 win over Ottawa. Two days later, he broke another scoreless tie in a 2-1 victory over Toronto. Three days after that, he scored in overtime as the Penguins beat Florida, 3-2.
If not for Malkin, it's possible the Penguins would have started the season with six straight losses.
“He's scored quite a few goals for us at important times,” Kessel said.
After a stretch in which the Penguins won nine of 10 games, the season cratered during a dismal weekend in mid-November.
There was a home loss to a free-falling Columbus team followed by a 4-0 shellacking in New Jersey. In the Malkin-Crosby era, the Penguins rarely, if ever, have turned in a performance as bad as the one they managed that night against the Devils.
Afterward, Malkin spoke up.
“We're not playing right,” he said at the time. “We're not working hard. We're mad at each other. We need to stop, look in the mirror and start working.”
Malkin subsequently walked back the “mad at each other” part, but the sentiment remained. Something needed to change.
Three days later, Malkin had a tour-de-force performance in a 4-3 victory over Minnesota, racking up two goals and two assists. It kicked off a prosperous seven-game stretch in which Malkin posted eight goals and five assists as the Penguins went 4-1-2.
His leadership skills were on full display.
“He's not a big talker. He's more of a show-er,” Hornqvist said. “Obviously he works really hard on the ice, and he scores those timely goals for us. That's what a leader does. Some guys are different. They maybe get the guys going in the room or on the bench. He's more a guy who takes charge out there and plays hard and gets momentum for our hockey club.”
‘You know how to play'
The Penguins started to look like a more dangerous team almost immediately after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in mid-December, but the results were slow to catch up to the improvement in quality of play.
Sullivan's first four games behind the bench were losses, and if a win didn't come soon, doubt was likely to take root.
On Dec. 21, Malkin scored twice as the Penguins soundly defeated rival Columbus, 5-2. Since then, the Penguins are 9-3-4, and Malkin has 20 points in his past 17 games.
There are no guarantees the Penguins' most recent period of success will continue past the All-Star break, of course. The season still could end up in the ditch the team has tried so hard to avoid for the past four months.
But if it does, there is little chance the steady, consistent Malkin would be to blame.
“If you're a good player, you have to show a good level every game,” Malkin said. “Sometimes, of course, I'm not having my (best) game, but when you have more experience, you know how to play. You understand you have to be at the same level all the time.”