Penguins leaning on consistent all-star Malkin

Thursday, 01.28.2016 / 3:00 AM
Wes Crosby  - Correspondent

PITTSBURGH – Flashes of brilliance have defined Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin's career, but this season, consistency has been the key to his success.

Entering his 10th NHL season, Malkin was known for going on lengthy stretches of dominance that even Penguins captain Sidney Crosby could not reach. Those were counterbalanced by equally lengthy droughts, however, framing Malkin as one of the League's most dangerous, but streaky, players.

Things have changed in 2015-16. As a result, Malkin is Pittsburgh's lone forward heading to the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Nashville.

"I think he's been one of our more consistent players," coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's a threat most nights. … He certainly generates a ton of offensive chances for his line and the people he's on the ice with. He's a big part of this team. I think all of our top guys understand the importance that they bring to the table to help us win, and when we have them all going, I think we're a dangerous team."

With Crosby the one struggling through the first two months of the season before going on an explosive tear through December and January, Malkin has been the primary offensive performer Pittsburgh can routinely trust. His 47 points and 23 goals are each six ahead of Crosby for the Penguins lead.

Crosby's recent success has turned some of the attention away from the Penguins' second-line center. After the worst start to his NHL career, with nine points through Pittsburgh's first 18 games, Crosby rebounded with 32 points in its next 29 -- he had at least a point in 22 of the 29 games -- and has 11 goals in its past 15.

The captain's surge has fueled the Penguins' push into the second wild card spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, but without Malkin's stability, Pittsburgh could have dug a hole too deep for Crosby to dig out.

"I think every night he creates chances," Crosby said. "If he doesn't produce a point, he's creating things. I mean, he's so tough to stop. If the game is wide open, obviously, he has the skills and speed to play that type of game. If it's tight checking, he has the size to fight and get to the net, and create things that way. Him being able to create a chance or setting someone up, it really doesn't matter, he can make either play."

Malkin, whose second line has gone through several different variations under coach Mike Sullivan and former coach Mike Johnston this season, has scored in 28 of 48 games. He has failed to score in three consecutive games just twice, and has 20 points in his past 17 games.

Crosby's pace has quickened, but Malkin's hasn't slowed. Pittsburgh's offense has heavily relied on its top-six forward group to produce the bulk of its scoring, which most likely won't change through the stretch run. Malkin and Crosby, along with defenseman Kris Letang, must continue to produce if Pittsburgh hopes to remain in a playoff spot.

Their continued success seems more realistic now than it did a month ago.

Before acquiring forward Carl Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks for forward David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening on Jan. 16, the Penguins' top-six was a revolving door. Phil Kessel, who began the season on the top line, shuffled between the second and third. Patric Hornqvist, a natural right wing, sometimes was asked to play out of position to Malkin's left. Perron bounced between the two lines but never found his footing on either.

With Hagelin slotted into the second line, things have at least temporarily fallen into place, and the immediate impact is noticeable. Kessel is beginning to ignite with 11 points in 12 games and three goals in the past three. And Malkin got his 10th NHL hat trick, a day after saying he believes Pittsburgh will make the playoffs, to fuel the Penguins to a come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 23.

"You have a first-row seat to see one of the best players in the League do what he can do best," Hagelin said. "He's always making a lot of great plays. He's not a selfish player, but he still scores three goals. It's pretty amazing."

That wasn't the first time Malkin made an eye-opening statement before delivering the following game.

After a 4-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 14, Pittsburgh held a closed-door meeting. Malkin was most vocal, saying the Penguins were mad at each other and they had to "stop and look in the mirror." Three days later, against the Minnesota Wild, Malkin had two goals and two assists to lift Pittsburgh to a 4-3 win at Consol Energy Center.

Malkin's emotion resonates in the Penguins locker room. He has a passion that sometimes spills over on the ice, like when a tussle with Devils forward Joseph Blandisi resulted in him laying prone on the ice for close to a minute at the end of the first period of a 2-0 win Tuesday. But when Malkin is able to focus his emotion, he tends to reach a level few players could attain.

"He's so scary," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "He has some of the best skills in the history of the world playing this game. And he is physically imposing with those skills, and when he's [angry], when he's playing his best hockey, there are very few guys in the world scarier to play against."

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