Malkin again makes instant impact in return to playoffs after long injury absence
Though he'd prefer simply to reach the start of the playoffs healthy and in a rhythm, Evgeni Malkin certainly knows how to re-enter the Penguins' postseason lineup after extensive absences with a bit of a splash.
Malkin, out the last 13 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, tallied secondary assists on the Penguins' first two goals in their 3-1 win over Columbus in the first-round opener Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
That production topped his one-assist effort in his first game back in 2016, when he returned to action in Game 2 of the first round after a month on the sideline with an upper-body injury.
“It's not easy,” Malkin said. “I'm tired in this game after like the second period. ... I think the next game, I feel a little bit better, for sure.”
In the days leading up to the opener against the Blue Jackets, Malkin expressed his desire to build up a bit of momentum with a regular-season game or two. He started mixing contact into his practice workouts Friday but remained a scratch in Toronto on Saturday and in New York on Sunday.
Neither of Malkin's assists involved his signature playmaking. He suspected his first assist, the product of a shot from the slot by Bryan Rust and pass that went off of Phil Kessel's skate, stemmed largely from good fortune.
“He wanted to stop and was off balance, so he's a little bit lucky,” Malkin said. “If he passed to Rusty (with his skate). He's amazing. But I think he's a little bit lucky.”
Kessel again provided the pivotal element in the second goal that involved Malkin as the winger's wrist shot from the left circle simply overpowered goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Malkin did little more than move the puck around the perimeter to earn credit.
“It's fun,” Malkin said of teaming up with Kessel. “He's an amazing player. He's actually like a playoff guy. He wants to win every game. He wants to score every game. He wants to play hard every game.”
During the 2016 Stanley Cup run, Malkin ended up with what initially resembled some of the team's least polished playmakers. While Nick Bonino centered the vaunted “HBK Line” with Kessel and Carl Hagelin and Sidney Crosby teamed with Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist, Malkin skated beside Rust and Chris Kunitz.
There's no longer any doubt about whether Kessel or Rust complements Malkin, and vice versa. That's bad news for the Blue Jackets, who must deal with the scoring balance coach Mike Sullivan so frequently pursues with his forwards.
“I think everybody is familiar with Geno,” Rust said. “Guys in this locker room have played with him enough, and he's played with guys enough to know their tendencies. He has chemistry with everyone. We kind of built a little bit of chemistry tonight. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Will Malkin look to top the way he opened last postseason, when he tallied nine points in his first six games back? That's not anywhere near the top of his priority list.
“I don't worry about points,” he said. “I worry about my game. I help today. It's fine. But it's more important that we win.”