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Malkin wants his 'game back' for Penguins

Center determined to improve in defensive end, looks forward to facing Lightning

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Evgeni Malkin said he is not happy with his defensive play for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, but the center is promising to turn it around.

"I know my level," Malkin said after practice Tuesday. "I know I'm a good player. I want my game back.

"I will play right the next game and do small things to help the team. ... I try in practice. I try in the game, but sometimes it's the wrong play. Again, it's a long season. I [won't] look back."

Malkin will have a chance to put those words to action beginning Wednesday, when the Penguins host the Atlantic Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning (37-10-2, NHL-high 76 points) at PPG Paints Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS).

Malkin is tied with forward Phil Kessel for second in scoring on Pittsburgh (26-17-6) with 53 points (14 goals, 39 assists). He has 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in his past 10 games and is one assist shy of 600 in the NHL. But defensive lapses and a Penguins-high 46 penalty minutes have defined what has been a disappointing season so far.

Malkin also has a minus-20 rating, which would be the worst in his 13-season NHL career. 

"It's a little bit frustrating for myself, but I understand it's a long season," he said. "I look to the future. I look forward. Of course, minus-20 is not what I look for before the season. It's tough."

The Penguins have lost two straight games, are 1-4-0 in their past five after going 10-1-0 in their previous 11 and have allowed at least five goals in four of their past five. None of that has been lost on Malkin.

"We understand everyone looks at us, and everyone sees what's going on," he said. "I think it's not fun to watch how we play."

Pittsburgh is coming off a 6-3 home loss to the New Jersey Devils on Monday, its first game following the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend. The Penguins, who hold the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, have been outscored 15-6 in three losses this season to the Devils, who are last in the Metropolitan Division.

Part of Malkin's frustration stems from an up-and-down power play. Pittsburgh has converted 24.8 percent of its chances this season, which ranks sixth in the NHL, but also has allowed an NHL-high 11 shorthanded goals, including one to Brian Boyle that gave New Jersey a 3-0 lead at 3:30 of the second period Monday.

"We give them so many scoring chances," Malkin said. "We play four forwards and we need to understand that if we lose the puck, all five guys need to backcheck. Not just two guys or like one guy, like [defenseman Kris Letang]. He does a hard job, but we need to support him. Sometimes it's like 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 against him. 

"[When you] lose [the] puck in the neutral zone, all five guys have to backcheck. I think it's important. ... We understand, like last night, we have great guys that play the power play but last night, we don't do the right things." 

Coach Mike Sullivan said he is considering breaking up the top power-play unit of center Sidney Crosby, forward Patric Hornqvist, Malkin, Kessel and Letang.

The Penguins usually practice special teams near the end of each practice but didn't Tuesday. 

"It's an important part of our team. It's an aspect of our game that's won a lot of games for us," Sullivan said. "Certainly, I think we're all well aware of the amount of goals we've given up. We can't continue in that vein and expect to win consistently." 

The power play might change against the Lightning, but the lines and defense pairs likely won't. 

Sullivan showed the same lineup he used Monday during practice Tuesday, including Jack Johnson on a defense pair with Marcus Pettersson. Johnson is fine after sustaining an undisclosed injury in the third period Monday, Sullivan said.

Malkin said he welcomes the challenge of facing the Lightning and continues to view the Penguins as a measuring stick for the rest of the NHL.

"We understand we're not in the playoffs right now," he said. "We have to understand each team wants to beat us. We're a great team, and everyone plays real hard when it's against us. It's not just skill. It's everything."

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