Survival tips for Penguins while Evgeni Malkin is sidelined by injury
On March 11, 2016, Evgeni Malkin suffered an upper-body injury after a collision with Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Dalton Prout.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had gone 5-5-0 in their previous 10 games and were seventh in the Eastern Conference, only three points ahead of the ninth-place Philadelphia Flyers. Missing the playoffs was a real possibility.
Without Malkin, the Penguins went on an improbable 13-2-0 run to close out the regular season. When he returned in the second game of the playoffs, the Penguins marched to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup championship.
On Saturday afternoon, Malkin suffered another upper-body injury on a cross-check by St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo. With coach Mike Sullivan describing his status as week-to-week, it’s entirely possible Malkin will be out for the final three weeks of the regular season.
It’s probably not reasonable to expect lightning to strike twice.
A more realistic goal for the Penguins is to keep their heads above water over the final nine games, secure a playoff berth and hope Malkin can provide a playoff boost when he returns.
Here’s a look at a few ways the Penguins can pull that off:
1. Turn to Teddy
Sullivan’s first move when Malkin went down was to shift rookie Teddy Blueger to the center spot on the second line, but he has other options. Most notably, he could relieve Jared McCann of his first-line winger duties and use him in the middle of the second line.
It might be worth sticking with Blueger for a while, however. Ultimately, the 24-year-old Latvian profiles as a bottom-six center. This season, though, he has four goals in 19 games with limited ice time.
Among NHL players who have logged at least 100 minutes, Blueger ranks 13th in goals per 60 minutes at even strength (1.37), just behind Jake Guentzel (1.50) and Alex Ovechkin (1.45) but ahead of Nikita Kucherov (1.24) and Patrick Kane (1.14).
His relatively hot hand could come in handy the next few weeks.
2. Lean on Line 3
Malkin’s injury in 2016 led to the formation of the HBK Line, which was a major factor in the championship run that followed. While the current third-line combination of Dominik Simon, Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist is nowhere near as dynamic, it’s recently been a possession monster.
Over the last five games, the Penguins have outshot opponents 30-18 and outscored them 3-0 at even strength with the line on the ice.
They could handle some extra minutes with Malkin out.
3. Get Phil going
A drought-ending goal March 7 hasn’t magically turned Phil Kessel back into a dominant offensive force — he was fighting the puck most of the night in a 2-1 overtime loss to Philadelphia on Sunday — but he does have nine points in his last nine games.
No matter what configuration the second line takes on, Kessel will have to be a driving force for it to be successful.
4. Keep shooting
In their first game without Malkin, the Penguins racked up 42 shots on goal against Philadelphia. In the game he was hurt, they took 41 shots on the Blues.
Their weekend was made miserable thanks in large part to the performance of a pair of rookie sensations in net, Jordan Binnington and Carter Hart, who gave up only one goal apiece. Keep up the shot barrage and shooting percentage will likely even out in the long run.
5. Run out the clock
For the Penguins to miss the playoffs, ninth-place Montreal, which has lost four of its last five games, would have to make up a seven-point deficit in a 10-game span. That’s a heck of a hill to climb.
Going .500 the rest of the way would almost certainly be enough to get the Penguins into the tournament. Given the circumstances, that’s the only goal they should focus on.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .