To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine which star scorer -- Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux or Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin -- can pull out of his slow start and resume his spot among the League’s top scorers.
Two seasons ago, Evgeni Malkin had one of the best seasons of his career. He scored 50 goals for the first time and finished with a League-high 109 points. He scored 12 power-play goals, and set career highs with nine game-winning goals and 339 shots on goal. He capped the season by winning the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award.
That 2011-12 season also marked the high point for Claude Giroux. He set career bests in goals, assists and points. His 65 assists were second in the League and his 93 points were third. It was the most productive season for a Flyer since Eric Lindros had 93 points in 1998-99. Giroux carried his outstanding form into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, totaling six goals and 14 points in six games against the Penguins the first round of the playoffs, capped by a memorable first shift that saw him level Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and score the game's first goal. He finished the postseason with 17 points in 10 games.
But as the Flyers and Penguins prepare to meet at Consol Energy Center on the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS), neither star is scoring at those lofty numbers.
Malkin has 15 points but just three goals, one on the power play. Giroux has 10 points (one goal, nine assists) and a minus-8 rating in his first 17 games this season. He scored his first goal of the season Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, snapping a 21-game streak without a goal that dated to last season.
Both players have solid pedigrees as big-time scorers and team leaders, but can either one get back to that level this season?
Let’s break it down and reach a conclusion.
That playoff series against the Penguins two seasons ago featured former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette referring to Giroux as "the best player in the world," and for those six games he might have been accurate. However, by then Giroux already was considered by many to be among the game's best.
And it wasn't just because Giroux had six goals and eight assists in that series. In the absence of franchise stalwarts Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Giroux had stepped into the No. 1 center spot, was on the top power-play and penalty-kill units, and took all the important faceoffs regardless of situation.
Giroux, 25, was taken by the Flyers with the 22nd pick of the 2006 NHL Draft. He became a full-time NHL player during the 2008-09 season, when he had 27 points in 42 games and then led the Flyers in scoring in the postseason with six points in five games. In 2009-10 he had 47 points in 82 games and scored eight of his 16 goals on the power play. He followed that with 10 goals and 11 assists in 23 playoff games as the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
He led the team in scoring with 76 points in 82 games in 2010-11, and raised his play even higher in 2011-12 as he gained more ice time and responsibilities after the trades of Richards and Carter.
Last season was a bit of a step back for Giroux. He was named captain before the season started and had 48 points in 48 games. But he had 13 goals -- less than half of the 28 he had the season before -- and was a minus-7 as the Flyers missed the postseason.
This season it has been even rockier for Giroux. He needed surgery to repair tendon damage in his right index finger in an offseason golf accident that cost him part of training camp, and then his goal drought extended through the first 15 games of the season before he finally scored Saturday.
He's also had a rotating cast of linemates as coach Craig Berube has searched for positive combinations.
On Saturday, Giroux played with Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek, his linemates for most of last season. That level of comfort could have led to his goal, which came on a slick move in the offensive zone when he faked a shot and used Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference as a screen.
So could that be the breakthrough Giroux was waiting for? His teammates certainly think so.
"To get that first goal, I think it's going to get his confidence going," Vincent Lecavalier said Saturday. "He's going to play at another level."
With two Art Ross trophies to go with a Hart Trophy, a Calder Trophy and a Conn Smythe Trophy, Malkin already has a treasure trove of accomplishments and is just 27 years old.
The second pick of the 2004 NHL Draft, Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh as advertised for the 2006-07 season, and his 33 goals and 85 points earned him the League's rookie of the year award.
He followed with back-to-back 100-point seasons, including a League-high 113 points in 2009. Then came 36 points in the 2009 playoffs, the seventh-most in one playoff season in League history and the top performance since Wayne Gretzky had 40 points in 1993. Malkin's effort helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup and earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Injuries the next two seasons limited Malkin's output, including a knee injury that cost him the final three months of the regular season and all of the 2011 playoffs. He rebounded in 2011-12 with his first 50-goal season, and his 109 points earned him his second scoring title and his first League MVP award.
Finding the back of the net first was an issue for Malkin last season as his goal total dropped to nine, even though he had 33 points in 31 games.
This season has seen more of the same as Malkin is third on the team with 15 points in 17 games, but he hasn't scored a goal in 10 games. He has seven assists in that span and is a minus-6. Part of Malkin’s offensive issues could come from not having consistent linemates. James Neal was injured opening night and missed five weeks. Beau Bennett, his other linemate, was hurt Oct. 12 and missed about a month. Jussi Jokinen has filled in there, but other forwards have come and gone.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he's happy with how Malkin has been playing defensively, but knows his star center is pressing to contribute offensively.
"At the end of the night he's kept the other [team's] top line off the score sheet, off the scoring-chance sheet, largely due to the way he's playing with his line not only offensively, but defensively," Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The only … disappointment for Evgeni is he's looking for the goal or the assist or the play to have benefit and so many other things that he can do, does do, are big factors in the game for us.
"Maybe a goal would take the [burden] of [not] scoring away from him, but having played three solid games in a row, been great defensively, really great in the Boston game [Oct. 30]. If he's going to keep playing that way that's a good thing for our team."
The verdict: Pittsburgh's array of offensive talent, as well as its strong defensive play, has been able to carry the Penguins to the top of the Metropolitan Division, easing the burden on Malkin and making it easier to believe he'll start scoring closer to the 1.22 point-per-game rate he was at entering the season. In addition, he's started to form a bond with Jokinen, and as Neal gets up to speed that should open more space for Malkin.
Giroux likely will return to a more representative level offensively, but as the Flyers continue to struggle to score, it will be harder for him because his line will continue to be the focal point of opposing defensive game plans. However, finally scoring a goal will relieve some of the pressure, and if he sticks with Hartnell and Voracek he'll at least have a level of familiarity with his linemates, creating another level of comfort for him.
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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