Alex Galchenyuk is finding a fit with Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins
In a way, it was just like old times for Evgeni Malkin on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Both when last season closed with a playoff loss to the New York Islanders and when he played his first exhibition game of this season Thursday night, a 4-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he had a 30-goal scorer from Wisconsin on his wing.
It used to be Madison’s Phil Kessel who flanked Malkin, but Kessel is plying his trade in the Sonoran Desert with the Arizona Coyotes.
His replacement is one of the men he was traded for, Milwaukee’s Alex Galchenyuk.
Possessing a birth certificate from a state far more renowned for producing Gouda cheese than goal-scoring wingers is where the commonalities pretty much begin and end for Galchenyuk and Kessel.
Galchenyuk is a left-handed shot. Kessel is a righty.
Galchenyuk has had his career derailed at times because of injuries. Kessel hasn’t missed a game in nearly a decade.
Galchenyuk speaks three languages. Kessel almost never spoke — publicly — at all.
One of Galchenyuk’s dialects is Russian. His father, Alexander Galchenyuk, is a native of Belarus, formerly a republic within the Soviet Union, and played for the Milwaukee Admirals of the defunct International Hockey League at the time of Alex’s birth in 1994.
A common theory throughout Malkin’s career is a fellow Russian — or someone at least fluent in the language — could provide a level of comfort for the Penguins’ introverted superstar. Sergei Gonchar, formerly an all-star defenseman who is now an assistant coach, has filled that role on and off during his various tenures with the organization.
Other experiments involving Ukrainians such as Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky and Russian Sergei Plotnikov had varying degrees of success. Fedotenko skated on Malkin’s line during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2009, and Ponikarovsky and Ploknikov lasted less than one season each with the franchise.
Considering Malkin’s success with Americans such as Kessel, Canadians such as James Neal and Czechs such as Petr Sykora, language or cultural barriers haven’t been insurmountable. If Malkin wants the puck, he has found ways to communicate that desire.
“I’m sure he’ll yell in Russian,” joked Galchenyuk, who also speaks Italian (his father played in Italy as well).” Just by skating out there a couple of times with him, you hear it in Russian or a little bit of English. I’ll figure out how to hear him.”
Galchenyuk scored the opening goal against the Blue Jackets. His first came on a power-play opportunity at 6:28 of the first period. Taking a cross-ice pass from forward Jake Guentzel, Galchenyuk gripped and rippe a wrister from above the left circle to the far side past the left shoulder of goltender Elvis Merzlikins.
“From where I was standing, it looked like a hell of a shot,” said defenseman Justin Schultz, who recorded a secondary assist on the score. “That’s what you’ve got to have on those flankers, you’ve got to shoot the puck and it will open up seams.”
He nearly scored again 30 seconds into the second period when Malkin created a two-on-one rush against Columbus defenseman Ryan Collins. Pushing the puck up the right wing, Malkin saucered a centering pass over a sliding Collins. Galchenyuk corralled the puck to the left of the crease and put a forehand shot on net. A brilliant right toe save by Merzlikins denied him of the score.
“It was exciting,” Galchenyuk said. “It took some time to get used to (Malkin). But I feel we get more comfortable with each other out there. We’ll keep building. It’s only game one.
Throughout his career with the Montreal Canadiens and Coyotes, Galchenyuk, 25, has not enjoyed the luxury of playing on a line with anyone remotely as talented as Malkin, considered by some to be the greatest Russian player in NHL history.
“His skill level, his creativity, his skating, it’s top notch,” Galchenyuk said. “You’re always trying to go out there and work hard and learn something from him at the same time.”
Galchenyuk isn’t a slouch himself considering he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Canadiens in 2012.
“You saw it tonight with the shot on the power play,” said Schultz. “He’s dynamic. He’s got some speed and skill. He’s fitting in really nice with us and we love having him.”
In each of his past two seasons, Galchenyuk has been limited to 19 goals. His career high came as a 21-year-old with the Canadiens when he reached 30 goals while primarily playing on a line with Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty, each of whom is a sturdy, consistent talent. But neither is in the same mesosphere as Malkin.
“They’ve been playing together all camp an they’ve got some good chemistry right now,” said Schultz. “They’re all such good skill players. (Forward Brandon) Tanev’s got the speed to create stuff for them. And obviously those other two have great playmaking and can score. It’s going to be a dangerous line for us.”
It wouln’t be the first time the Penguins have tried to salvage a player’s career by mixing him in with the high-end talent this club boasts.
“It’s pretty easy to fit in here,” said Schultz, himself a reclamation project general manager Jim Rutherford plucked out of Edmonton. “You’ve got a lot of good leaders that have been through a lot and have won multiple Stanley Cups. I know they helped me. He feels comfortable here and that’s what we want.”
Kessel was a point-per-game player in each of the past two seasons. Galchenyuk acknowledged there are expectations for him to replace some of that production.
“I guess so,” he said. “But I’m coming in here, I’m not trying to think about that. I’m just trying to work as hard as I can, compete, get my game back and be ready for Game 1.”
Note: Forward prospect Adam Johnson is day-to-day because of an undisclosed injury, coach Mike Sullivan said. Johnson, who scored a goal in Monday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Sabres, did not practice Tuesday.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .