PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' other superstar center should not be overlooked.
Many will focus on Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin when they play in the Eastern Conference Second Round. Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin, however, could steal the show.
When healthy, Malkin is a reliable offensive threat, showcased in the latter stages of the Penguins' five-game series victory against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round. After struggling despite earning an assist in Games 2 and 3, his first two games back from an upper-body injury, Malkin was a primary catalyst in Pittsburgh's 5-0 Game 4 win at Madison Square Garden.
Malkin assisted on the first two goals, scored by Eric Fehr and Crosby, before capping the win with two power-play goals. He had another strong outing two days later with an assist in the Penguins' 6-3 Game 5 win on April 23.
Even with those two performances, Malkin expects to reach another gear.
"I scored a couple goals, but I think I can play better," Malkin said. "I want to play better. I work hard every day … If we want to beat them, I want to play better."
With Malkin inserted back into the lineup, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan is able to tweak lines in order to maximize production.
Left wing Conor Sheary has replaced Chris Kunitz and added speed to Crosby's line. Fehr moved from the bottom six to right wing alongside Malkin and scored his sixth career Stanley Cup Playoffs goal in Game 4 against New York. On what Pittsburgh considers its third line, Nick Bonino centers left wing Carl Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel, a combination that helped the Penguins to 14 wins in 16 games without Malkin.
Before sustaining his injury on March 11, Malkin had gone more than two months without failing to score a point in consecutive games. When the Penguins struggled to produce through the first two months of the regular season, Malkin carried the load with 25 points in his first 24 games.
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Malkin finished second on the Penguins with 27 goals despite playing in 25 fewer games than Kessel and Patric Hornqvist, who ranked third and fourth. Malkin scored 58 points in 57 games this season before scoring seven, one behind Crosby, in four games in the first round.
The Penguins-Capitals series will involve three players who have won Hart and Art Ross Trophies - Malkin, Crosby and Ovechkin. Two have won the Stanley Cup - Malkin and Crosby. One has won the Conn Smythe Trophy - Malkin.
When the Penguins won their last championship in 2009, Malkin scored 36 points in 24 games, including 10 points in a seven-game second-round series against Washington. If he is able to maintain his performance from the regular season and late in the first round, Malkin could play a large role in the Penguins eliminating the Capitals again.
"Geno's a competitive guy," Crosby said. "He knows that it's an important time of year and he wants to be at his best. So, I'm sure he's going to be a part of the conversation and a part of the storyline of the series."