Forget the highlight films. Often it isn’t the fancy, skillful goals that win big games in the NHL.
It’s the ugly ones, the goals you need to slow down the tape to see. The tips, the rebounds, the screens set on point shots and the wraparounds all come from hard work in front of the net. If your players don’t have the courage to get there, you don’t win.
This is the area that Lightning wing Ryan Malone has made his office. Malone gets there on a consistent basis and over the last month he has been making it count.
With injuries taking two key forwards out of the lineup for most of the last month, Malone has been a factor all over the ice with his size (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) and speed. Malone produced seven goals, nine assists and has a plus/minus rating of plus-1 during the previous 15 games (four, seven and +2 in the last nine).
“He’s a top player on this team and, in order to win, we need him going,” center Steven Stamkos said. “He’s really stepping up for us, scoring big goals and making big plays. He’s getting back to what he’s good at. He’s going to the front of the net, winning battles, setting the tone physically and talking on the bench and in the room to get guys going.”
Malone had 21 goals through January 21 last season, but the team’s struggles and injuries hampered him (missing 13 games) the second half of the season. He still finished the season with a career-high 26 assists, was tied for third in the NHL in game-winning goals (seven), led the team in hits (178) and had three goals and two assists in the Olympics for the United States.
When the season was over, Malone said he re-focused. With new management and a new coach, there would be new opportunities. He came to camp feeling as healthy as he has been in a Lightning sweater.
After scoring two goals the first 18 games, Malone has leaped to third on the team in scoring with nine goals and 25 points. He said early on he was adjusting to the new system and trying to find his place.
“I think, with some of the injuries, I got a little more opportunity which you always try to take advantage,” said Malone, who turned 31 on December 1. “I haven’t really changed too much of my game. The bounces are just kind of happening for me now, so I’m trying to ride the wave.”
It looked good on paper, but Lightning coach Guy Boucher said the line of Malone with Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne just didn’t click early on in the season. Since then, Malone has had solid games playing with centers Dominic Moore and Nate Thompson. Saturday, he played most of the night against Buffalo with Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, contributing an assist after fighting through an Andrej Sekera check, six hits, five shots on goal and two takeaways.
Boucher has noticed subtle difference in Malone’s play the last month.
“At the beginning of the season, he was looking to play well,” Boucher said. “When you do that, you never really do.
“He was going to the net before. He was fighting to be at the net and have his presence felt, but he wasn’t fighting to score. His stick was in the air all the time. There’s a big difference between fighting to score and just fighting to be there.”
Malone said he didn’t change his off season training in Minnesota, but the off-ice training with Strength & Conditioning Coach Chuck Lobe and the short, hard practices have benefited his skating.
“I told him before the season his skating is the best it’s been,” Stamkos said. “I think it’s just from working hard. He’s not getting any younger, but he’s getting faster. He’s backchecking with a purpose and getting in on the forecheck.”
Malone leads the team in hits (67), including two steamroller checks against on Thrashers Wednesday, is second in power-play goals (seven), third in shots (103) and tied for second in takeaways (17).
The Pittsburgh native has also been a key leader.
“The one thing that’s really surprised me with [Malone] is how smart he is,” Boucher said. “It’s not just the way he plays, but off the ice and on the bench. He always knows exactly when to say something and what to say. He’s always right on. He’s a smart guy with a strong work ethic and the mentality of going to battle for a purpose.”