Malkin producing under pressure
Dan Bylsma described in vivid detail what the Penguins coach envisions as an A-game shift from Evgeni Malkin, the 22-year-old star center taking the puck from one end of the ice to the other at will.
Which is essentially what Malkin has done in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he has emerged as not just a dominant force but one who plays that way on a more consistent basis than ever before in his career.
Malkin is tied for second in Stanley Cup scoring with 21 points, just one behind Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Not only is Malkin ahead of his playoff scoring pace from last year, he's on the verge of eclipsing his 2008 playoff point total heading into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the Carolina Hurricanes at 7:30 tonight at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins lead the series, 1-0.
"People are trying to stop him, and they're good players and they know what he's going to do, so it's a challenge to be able to play that way, shift in and shift out and to be able to elevate your game," Bylsma said.
"There's been a lot of focus on it, but he's been very successful in these playoffs and it seems as if there's one game that's not up to the expectations of the media, there's focus on it. But there's a lot of players that would be happy with his point production in the playoffs."
While not many NHL superstars have endured the criticism Malkin has for his postseason play, he has no one to blame but himself. In 2007, he had no goals and four points in five games against Ottawa. Last year, he was held scoreless for the first four games of the Stanley Cup final against Detroit.
The complaints reached a crescendo when Malkin went five games - and a stretch of 17 periods, or 340 minutes of ice time - without a goal between Game 4 of the first-round series against Philadelphia until his third-period goal in Game 3 of the conference semifinal round against Washington.
Since then, Malkin has regained his scoring touch in a big and, perhaps, different way. He has eight games without a goal, but only three without a point. Malkin has recorded seven assists in the past four games and already has more (14) than he did in the postseason last year (12), when he finished with 22 points in 20 playoff games.
"I thought Malkin played a lot better than I've see him play before, in terms of in past games," said Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo, who played against Malkin while with Ottawa in a 2007 first-round series. "Maybe in his first year or so, it seemed like you could discourage him and kind of get him off his game. It just seems like he wants to compete more. He wants to score more. He's learning how to stay in games and not to quit."
After Malkin led the NHL in scoring during the regular season with 113 points (35 goals, 78 assists), this is what was expected of him. And that might be the greatest sign of Malkin's maturity, learning to produce under pressure.
"The (fans) want him to be first and they want him to be the best because he was the best (scorer) all season," Penguins left wing Max Talbot said. "He's been playing great right now, and we need him to play like that so we can have two great lines and a great power play.
"He's not the best scorer in the league for nothing."
Malkin showed off his skill set in Game 1 against Carolina by flipping a backhand in stride past goalie Cam Ward in the first period, then setting up Philippe Boucher's third-period goal with a secondary assist. It marked Malkin's eighth multiple-point game of this playoff run.
The same number as Crosby.
"They say he's a little bit overshadowed by Crosby, but I don't think he's overshadowed in the players' eyes because we all know how good of a player he is," Ward said. "When you've got a big guy like that driving hard to the net, it always makes it difficult on your defense. You've got to pay just as much attention to him as Crosby because he's just as valuable of a player for their hockey team."
Crosby believes Malkin's game is suited for this time of year.
"I don't think he's changed anything," Crosby said. "He always plays with a lot of grit. It's not like his game has to totally change when he plays in the playoffs because he plays that type of game all season.
"If anything, it's just experience and knowing what it takes."
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin is already ahead of his scoring pace of last year through 14 playoff games and on the verge of eclipsing his postseason total of 22 points last year despite eight games without a goal:
2008 -- Category -- 2009
9 -- Goals -- 7
10 -- Assists -- 14
19 -- Points -- 21