Sidney Crosby is still out with his concussion problems, and Alex Ovechkin is far off his old scoring pace. Does that mean the NBC NHL Game of the Week on Sunday between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals (12:30 p.m. ET) lacks juice?
Not so, says NBC Sports analyst and former NHL star Jeremy Roenick.
"This game doesn't have as much dramatics as it would if Sidney Crosby was playing, so the hype you would think would be a little bit down," Roenick told NHL.com Friday. "However, Evgeni Malkin is making this game even more attractive for everyone to sit in front of the TV because I think Malkin is playing the best hockey in the NHL right now."
Malkin lit up the Rangers for two more goals in Thursday's 4-1 win, lifting his point total to a League-best 54 heading into Friday's home game against Montreal. He has 7 goals in the last four games, and not coincidentally the Penguins have won them all to get back into the middle of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference after going through a six-game losing streak.
Malkin has 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points in the 18 games since Crosby went out of the lineup again with a recurrence of his concussion symptoms. He's been held without a point in just three of the games, including in last week's 1-0 loss at Washington.
"Everybody was starting to wonder if the Penguins were going to make the playoffs, and their GM, Ray Shero, comes out and says, 'We're making the playoffs,'" Roenick said, referring to a statement Shero gave the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the day after the Penguins lost at Washington. "That's a bold statement for the GM to make, and I love how he went on the line to put the pressure on his players. But the fact that Evgeni Malkin has raised his game two or three levels since Ray Shero said that speaks volumes to me about his character and talent level.
"The Penguins have won the last four games because of Malkin. He's not just scoring goals, these are beautiful, highlight, working goals."
Roenick, though, was also quick to praise Ovechkin, who scored his 19th goal of the season in Washington's 3-0 win over Montreal on Wednesday. Ovechkin has only 2 goals in his last seven games, but he has 10 goals and 15 points in the last 16 games after scoring only 9 goals with 21 points over the first 29 games.
The Capitals are 10-5-1 since Ovechkin started to heat up, and they entered Friday in first place in the Southeast Division by virtue of having five more non-shootout wins than the Florida Panthers.
"He looks energized, he's working hard, and he's playing with a lot of electricity right now, which is fun to watch," Roenick said. "Alexander Semin has played a little bit better, with more consistency."
The superstars aside, Roenick said he sees Sunday as the perfect time for these two rivals to meet up because, at least heading into Friday night's action, they both seem to be playing some of their best hockey of the season.
And even if the game doesn't include Crosby or two of Washington's stars (Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom), it still features Malkin and Ovechkin leading a pair of teams that are smack dab in the middle of a playoff race.
"They're both battling for playoff spots, which is a very different circumstance from what we've seen in the past when they were going for first and second place," Roenick said. "But they are both moving in the right direction, and that's why it is perfect for this matchup on NBC. I think it's a great storyline to follow."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl