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Malkin looking to lead Penguins back to playoffs

by Wes Crosby /

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' offense has lived and died by center Evgeni Malkin.

Sidney Crosby has returned to form with seven goals and 17 points in his past 14 games, his most productive stretch since scoring 23 points in the first 13 games of the season.

But that hasn't led to team success. In those 14 games, the Penguins went 4-8-3, not including a 2-0 loss to the Boston Bruins with Crosby injured.

Malkin fully played in five of the 14 games, the first three ending with a win before losing two straight when he returned April 5 from an undisclosed injury. In the nine games Malkin was injured, including the shutout loss to Boston on March 14 when he sustained a lower-body injury on his first shift, Pittsburgh won once, putting the Stanley Cup Playoffs in some doubt.

"There are a lot of good hockey teams that have had good years that are in the exact same position as us," Crosby said. "It's going to be about who handles it the best and who plays the best at the right time."

Pittsburgh would like to embrace that with Malkin in its lineup, and playing at his peak, beginning with their home finale against the New York Islanders on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SN360, TVA2, MSG+, ROOT).

The Penguins need their other star center to return to form if they hope to earn a ninth consecutive playoff berth. After getting two assists in wins against the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks coming off of his previous lower-body injury, Malkin was scratched from losses to the Philadelphia Flyers on April 1 and Columbus Blue Jackets on April 4.

He returned for the Penguins' rematch against the Flyers on April 5 but couldn't help Pittsburgh avoid a second consecutive 4-1 loss and season sweep by their cross-state rival.

"It's a tough situation, but we're still in it," Malkin said. "We're still in the playoffs. I've played here for a long time. It's the first time [we've been in this situation], but we need to work and just win the next two games. Forget that situation and start to play in the playoffs. It's 0-0 and we start a new game.

"[Our slump] is happening and it's fine, but we're still in it. Each team tries to beat us. Philly worked hard against us, but I believe this group has so much. Every player here, we work hard every practice … I still believe we will play in the playoffs."

But the playoffs aren't a certainty for Pittsburgh as they've been in years past.

Without Malkin, the Penguins have become reliant on their top line of Crosby centering right wing Patric Hornqvist and left wing Daniel Winnik. It has done its job, as has goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but Pittsburgh has continued to trudge through its most lackluster span of the season.

The Penguins are deeper than they were a year ago. General manager Jim Rutherford successfully fixed what was once their most glaring weakness. Forwards Steve Downie, Nick Spaling, Maxim Lapierre and Winnik, before ascending to the top line, joined third-line center Brandon Sutter and forward Beau Bennett in the bottom six.

The bottom half of the forward lines can now be realistically expected to produce timely scoring when needed. But if Malkin is taken out of the equation, the lines revert to being top-heavy.

Sutter moved to second-line center during Malkin's absence between forward Chris Kunitz and Downie, or forward Blake Comeau on occasion. This shifted Spaling, who normally plays third-line left wing, to center on that line next to Comeau and David Perron.

Forward Craig Adams, a scratch with a healthy lineup, was inserted onto the fourth line to the right of Lapierre and Bennett, who has scored four goals in 47 games this season after many expected him thrive in a top-six role.

Pittsburgh's defense has affected the forward group. With injuries to Kris Letang (concussion) and Christian Ehrhoff (upper body), the Penguins were down to five defensemen before recalling Taylor Chorney from the American Hockey League on April 3. That caused Winnik to serve as an emergency sixth defenseman in addition to playing left wing alongside Crosby.

All of this has led to too many minutes for too many players. The Penguins gave several high-minutes players, including Crosby, Hornqvist, Fleury, and defenseman Ian Cole a day off April 2 while the remaining four defensemen, who each played more than 20 minutes in the first of their two recent 4-1 losses to the Flyers, were permitted to leave that practice early.

With Malkin plugged back into the lineup, some, although not all, of those issues could be fixed.

The Penguins remain in a bind regarding their defense. An upper-body injury to rookie Derrick Pouliot has him listed as day-to-day and could further thin the blue line. With that, there seems to be no end in sight for the heavy load that has been put upon the defense since Letang sustained a concussion against the Coyotes on March 28.

The obvious bright side to Malkin returning is the Penguins have inserted one of their top two goal-scorers back into their lineup. Malkin hasn't yet played to his standard, but his presence adds depth Pittsburgh was lacking.

"I think anytime you can have [Malkin] in the lineup, you want [Malkin] in the lineup," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said.

Experimentation is not something a team wants to use during the first two weeks of April, but the Penguins' hand has been forced. The state of their lines has been inconsistent, which was made clear again in practice Thursday.

The top line remained steady. Crosby between Winnik and Hornqvist can be expected with Perron struggling five games into a return from an undisclosed illness. Perron has spent some time in the bottom six but was the second-line right wing alongside Malkin and Kunitz.

Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 42 | PTS: 70
SOG: 203 | +/-: 1
A week ago, Johnston said he had no interest in playing Perron with Malkin. After back-to-back losses with Malkin in the lineup, that sentiment seems to have changed.

"I haven't played with him. He's a new guy for me," Malkin said. "But he's a good, skilled player. He can pass. He's a great shooter. He's a skilled guy. … We're not confident right now, but we just have to support each other and play 60 minutes."

The added depth hasn't been enough for Pittsburgh to end its recent slump. After scoring one goal against the Flyers, the Penguins scored three first-period goals against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday before allowing three goals and losing 4-3 in overtime, when a regulation win would have secured a playoff berth.

The Senators, who trailed the Penguins by 15 points on March 13, were one point behind them entering their game against the New York Rangers on Thursday. There is a possibility the Penguins could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06.

Malkin, if he plays the way he is capable of through the final two games of the season, including against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, could quickly change that.

"I would assume we do [play differently without Malkin]," Kunitz said following Pittsburgh's loss to Philadelphia on April 1. "Geno's a guy who drives the puck and forces it places. … It doesn't matter who's on the ice, we have to play in the offensive zone with the puck."

Having Malkin in the locker room seems to make a difference in a similar way to his presence on the ice. Johnston named Malkin and Crosby as Pittsburgh's two clear leaders Thursday.

Following a three-game losing streak from Feb. 15-19, Malkin told his teammates to relax. The Penguins went on to win six of their next seven games. With Pittsburgh in a worse predicament, Malkin had a new message Thursday: "Have fun."

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