For Penguins, it takes a village to help Evgeni Malkin return to form
Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin sat out Thursday’s practice in Cranberry for maintenance after a particularly grueling effort the night before.
By playing a physically and emotionally engaged style of hockey, recording a pair of assists and fighting fellow superstar Steven Stamkos when tensions boiled over in the third period, Malkin inspired the Penguins to a rousing 4-2 victory over the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning.
When Malkin returns to the ice, his teammates would like to return the favor.
Malkin has been stuck in a slump for the better part of three months. Slump is a relative term, of course, as Malkin is still averaging more than a point per game, but he has two even-strength goals and a minus-11 rating in 24 games since Dec. 6.
To put the downturn behind him once and for all, it’s safe to say Malkin first will have to look in the mirror. Rediscovering his goal-scoring confidence and simplifying his game would go a long way.
But Malkin also can look around the locker room for a helping hand.
For most of the past three seasons, Malkin has found his greatest success with Carl Hagelin playing on his left wing.
For the past two games, Malkin and Phil Kessel have played with Bryan Rust on their left side. Rust’s game is similar to Hagelin’s: He has the speed and tenacity to create space for his highly skilled linemates.
“He does,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He brings similar attributes. He can really skate. He’s good on the forecheck. He’s a good puck-pursuit guy. He forces turnovers. He has the ability to catch the rush if they get caught in the offensive zone. He’s sound defensively. He has a lot of similar attributes.”
Rust said he gladly will sign up for that type of complementary relationship with Malkin.
When the Russian superstar has his game going, like he did Wednesday night, Rust can ride the wave.
“He’s obviously a guy who’s a tremendous part of this team,” Rust said. “Every time you see a guy like that get the fire under his (rear) lit a little bit, for lack of a better word, it’s good. It gave a lot of energy throughout our team and our line. I thought we carried it over throughout the rest of the game.”
When Malkin is slumping, Rust will do his part to pick his teammate up.
“Speaking from experience, when you’re struggling, it always helps to have linemates who are working their (tails) off to try to help you out and maybe help you play a little more simple so you don’t have to worry about too much out there,” Rust said.
The same concept applies to the defensemen playing behind Malkin.
When Malkin has been on the ice with Kris Letang at even strength this season, the Penguins have averaged 34.2 shots per 60 minutes. When Malkin has played with Jack Johnson, that figure slips to 31.3.
It’s not a huge difference, but it’s significant nonetheless. Malkin seems to thrive when he has a puck-moving specialist playing behind him.
The impending return of Justin Schultz from injury should help Malkin in that regard. In the meantime, his teammates on the blue line will do what they can to make sure he gets the puck in the most advantageous positions possible.
“It’s what I want to do every night,” Letang said. “When you have two centers with that skill level, Sid and Geno, trust me, the first thing I want to do is give it to them and they can do their thing. I’m trying to do the favor all the time. It’s not something I’m going to look to do more. It’s what I do.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .