PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin received some criticism for his start to the season.
He averaged a point per game during his first 22 games, but also struggled through a 15-game goalless stretch. He scored his first goal in more than a month Nov. 22 during the second period of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-3 win against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center.
Malkin, who leads the NHL with 30 assists, entered that game with two assists in each of his previous two games and has become more explosive since. After being named the NHL's Second Star for November, it seems the Hart, Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy winner has returned to form.
And after missing two games with a lower-body injury, Malkin will return Monday when the Penguins host the Columbus Blue Jackets (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Coach Dan Bylsma told reporters in Pittsburgh that his lineup would be a game-time decision, but Malkin went through the morning skate in his usual second-line center spot, flanked by Jussi Jokinen and Jayson Megna.
The way Malkin was playing prior to his injury, it should be a boost to the Penguns with Malkin returning.
"[Malkin's] month of November has been, at least from the media's aspect, maybe the least spectacular month of anyone's career," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "There was a lot of heat and pressure and question marks for the first 20 days of that month. He quietly put up multi-point games and assist games during the early part of that month, and played maybe his best game against Anaheim where he didn't get a point."
Malkin scored 25 points during the month and was playing at possibly his highest level before getting hurt during a morning skate held Dec. 5. He sat out games against the San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins.
Malkin's 21 assists during November were the most by a NHL player in a calendar month since January 1996, when Wayne Gretzky had 21 with the Los Angeles Kings. During his current nine-game point streak Malkin has four goals and 15 assists.
Malkin pushed his point total to 37 with two assists in the Penguins' 3-2 win against the Islanders on Dec. 3, putting him one point behind teammate Sidney Crosby for the League lead. Crosby extended his lead to five points following Pittsburgh's 3-2 loss against Boston on Saturday, while Malkin remained tied for second with the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane.
"We definitely expect the best out of one another but I don't think we follow [the stat rankings] too much," Crosby said. "I think the last month or so, with the way he’s played, he's been on fire and I think he's been a big part of our success.
"Those are kind of numbers or standings, but that's not something we're really thinking about or talking about."
In the eight games prior to his injury, Malkin and Crosby had scored multiple points in the same game four times, all Penguins wins. The Penguins went 6-1-1 in that stretch and are 20-8-1 this season when at least one of them scores a point in a game.
When Malkin and Crosby have been held pointless in the same game, Pittsburgh is 0-2-0.
James Neal's presence on Malkin's right wing was a major reason for Malkin raising his play. Neal missed 15 games after sustaining an upper-body injury in Pittsburgh's season-opening 3-0 win against the New Jersey Devils.
Now he'll have to get used to another right wing. Neal was suspended for five games by the NHL Department of Player Safety for an incident during the Penguins' game against the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
Malkin has three goals and 13 points in 15 games without Neal this season.
Neal is just the latest player currently unavailable to the Penguins.
Brooks Orpik was placed on injured reserve Monday with a concussion following an incident during the first period of the game Saturday against the Bruins. Brian Dumoulin was recalled from the American Hockey League, but Orpik's absence means the Penguins are without three of their top defenseman, as Paul Martin (leg) and Rob Scuderi (ankle) also are out.
Also missing are forwards Andrew Ebbett (ankle), Beau Bennett (wrist) and Tanner Glass (broken hand), and goalie Tomas Vokoun (blood clot).
But Pittsburgh's two scoring champions have been able to avoid lengthy injuries and Bylsma realizes how important having Malkin and Crosby consistently on the ice is to the team's success.
"[Malkin] certainly caught fire at the end of [November] in terms of being noticed," Bylsma said. "Sidney has kind of taken the quiet approach behind that, but he played 25-plus minutes [against the Islanders on Dec. 3] and we got a big game from him when we leaned on him heavily and he scored a big power-play goal for us and then the game-winner that was one we'll see again.
"They've been dynamic and they've done a lot for our team."
Bylsma isn’t the only NHL coach who recognizes Malkin’s importance.
The Penguins scored five goals in a win against the Sharks in their first game without Malkin. But on the morning before the game, Sharks coach Todd McLellan laughed when asked if he would rather have Malkin in Pittsburgh's lineup to form a proper comparison between the teams.
"No," McLellan said. "How's that?"