PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Penguins have only lost two games in the NHL playoffs so there's hardly any hand-wringing going on after a Game 4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final.
They can wrap things up Sunday (3 p.m) in a tidy five games and enter the Stanley Cup final with a sparking 12-2 playoff record.
For the first time in these playoffs, however, Penguins head coach Michel Therrien was asked Friday about the mini-slump Evgeni Malkin suddenly finds himself in. Considering how tantalizing his play has been in these playoffs, not only his 18 points (8-10) in 13 games but the fashion in which he's finished off some of those scoring chances, "mini" is the appropriate way to describe a so-called slump in his last three games in the conference final.
Malkin has been limited to one assist and a minus-2 rating in those three games, and wasn't very noticeable in Thursday night's 4-2 loss at Philadelphia. Then again, neither were many of his teammates.
"Yeah, you know what, he hasn't been productive like he was in the past," Therrien said on a conference call. "But, I think they did a good job about checking him. It's not, sometimes, a matter of the players not being productive. Sometimes you've got to give credit to the other team. They're doing a good job right now to contain him. It's going to be up to Evgeni Malkin to make sure he's going to be productive offensively."
Is he tired? The 21-year-old Russian, a Hart Trophy finalist for NHL MVP this year, has now played 95 games this season - easily the most in one season in his young playing career.
"I could understand fatigue would be a factor if we would have played seven games in every round," said Therrien, whose team needed only nine games to reach the conference final. "I think we had some quality time for rest. ...
"So I don't think fatigue is a factor."
While Malkin has scuffled somewhat in the last three games, fellow star centre Sidney Crosby has continued to produce with four points (2-2) and a plus-1 rating over the same stretch. Crosby has been a consistent performer throughout the playoffs while Malkin has combined mind-numbing greatness and highlight-reel material with so-so nights.
In the end, it adds up to nearly the identical offensive production - 19 points (4-15) for Crosby and 18 for Malkin.
"Well, they've been really good," said Therrien. "Honestly, they've been pretty good. You're looking at the big picture. They receive the kind of pressure for the team to get success. And you're looking at the big picture about our record in the playoffs - 11-2. So I've got to be really pleased about the way that they've been performing since the beginning of the playoffs.
"That's why we're optimistic for the rest of the playoffs."
Malkin will get an extra day of rest this weekend as the series pauses until Sunday. But that extra day probably means a lot more to the Flyers, who hope to possibly get back one or both of their top defencemen in Kimmo Timonen (blood clot) and Braydon Coburn (eye).
"It's a good thing we've got a couple of days," Flyers head coach John Stevens told reporters Friday at the team's practice facility in Voorhees, N.J. "I think time is our friend right now. And in terms of Braydon and Kimmo, I don't know. I can't say with any kind of certainty when they're in or they're out at this point."
Timonen had been presumed out for the series, but hinted Thursday night after Game 4 that he might return. As the backside general and the key to the transition game, he'd be a big boost.
"Well, he's a huge part of our team," said Stevens. "I mean, through this year he's progressed and in the playoffs he's really taken his game to another level. I think just his presence around our team all year, he's got deep respect by all his teammates. He just has composure all the time. I think that's infectious on our team. ...
"He's an invaluable guy that can't be replaced by one player. I think we've done a pretty good job by committee. But there's no question if he's able to play, he makes us better."
Coburn's eye continues to improve.
"I think his vision, the swelling has gone down to the point where he can see," said Stevens. "I still think it's a little distorted. ... But I think he can get to the point where he can see well enough to play.
"It's just a matter of getting back on the ice. He's going to have to wear a visor now. He rode the bike today for a little bit just to keep his legs going. We're hopeful we can get him on the ice tomorrow in practice, and see how he does. That will be the tell tale sign for us."