The loss of reigning MVP Sidney Crosby appeared to put the Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff chances in jeopardy. Thanks to the outstanding play of Evgeni Malkin, simply reaching the postseason is hardly a concern anymore.
Red-hot Malkin looks to lead the Atlantic Division-leading Penguins to their fourth straight victory as they host the slumping Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.
When Crosby suffered a high ankle sprain against Tampa Bay on Jan. 18, the Penguins (32-19-5) were riding a 9-0-1 streak that had them challenging for the division lead.
The shock of losing arguably the league's highest-profile player clearly played a part in Pittsburgh's 3-0 loss that night. Malkin, though, wasted little time stepping into Crosby's role as team leader, helping the Penguins go 6-2-2.
With 33 goals and 85 points that earned him the Calder Trophy last season, Malkin's offensive skill was never in doubt. What has been most impressive about his play lately is his ability to carry the team in Crosby's absence.
"He's upgraded his game a big notch, so give him a lot of credit," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "He showed everyone that he is a great player. He is showing that he can be a great leader."
Malkin has eight goals and 13 assists in 10 games since Crosby's injury, tallying four goals and 11 assists during a six-game point streak. He also has five straight multipoint games.
"Hopefully we're going to win all these games and I'm going to play good," Malkin said through an interpreter. "I've never had a stretch like this over here in NHL or back in the Russian league."
Malkin has moved him into a tie for third in the scoring race with 73 points, three behind league leader Alexander Ovechkin of Washington.
Malkin scored and set up three other goals in Pittsburgh's 4-3 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday. He has scored in each of his six career games against the Bruins (28-23-5), collecting eight goals and one assist.
|Ty Conklin is 14-3-3 with a 2.26 GAA in 21 games this season. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
After Malkin, Pittsburgh's most important player now is goaltender Ty Conklin, who began this season third on the team's depth chart. Conklin, who made 27 saves Sunday, is 14-3-3 with a 2.26 goals-against average in 21 games this season.
Therrien will have a decision to make soon with starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury scheduled to begin a rehab assignment with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL on Wednesday. Fleury hasn't played since Dec. 6 due to a high ankle sprain.
Boston comes in having lost four of its last five games after a late rally fell short in a 3-2 loss to visiting Carolina on Tuesday.
Shawn Thornton scored his first two goals of the season in the third period for the Bruins, who have dropped into ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Buffalo.
"We got our first goal a little late, but you saw the momentum that it built and the energy that it gave our team," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "If only we could have gotten that earlier in the game."
The Bruins may not mind that this will be the first of five straight road games. They've won four of five away from home while losing four in a row at Boston.
Tim Thomas figures to be back in net after Alex Auld started Tuesday. Thomas is 0-3-0 with a 4.34 GAA in his last three starts.
The Penguins have won four straight against the Bruins, including both meetings this season.