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Pens confident Malkin will break slump soon

by Todd Kimberley

"I think he's showing a little frustration that he hasn't scored and he's squeezing his stick too hard and putting so much pressure on himself. I think once he scores a couple he'll relax and it's going to be easier for him."
-- Sergei Gonchar

CALGARY -- Dan Bylsma wants to make one thing clear. While the Pittsburgh Penguins try to help star center Evgeni Malkin sort through his scoring woes, nothing is getting lost in translation.

"I can unequivocally say that there is no language barrier when talking to Evgeni Malkin," the Penguins' coach told reporters here, where his club was preparing to battle the Flames on Wednesday night. "He's extremely smart. It may not be perfect English in front of the cameras. It may not be perfect English in private, either. But he definitely understands everything. He gets it."

Malkin won the NHL's scoring race last season with 113 points, including 78 assists, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP following a League-leading 36 postseason points as the Pens won their first Stanley Cup since 1992.

This season, though, the 23-year-old from Magnitogorsk, Russia, has had his problems. Heading into Wednesday's game against the Flames at the Pengrowth Saddledome, Malkin hadn't lit the lamp in nine contests. He does have 6 assists in that time.

With 43 points, including just 13 goals, Malkin entered the day 22nd in the League in scoring. And during this nine-game scoring slump, Malkin is a minus-8, including an ugly minus-4 Jan. 3 in a 6-2 loss to the Florida Panthers.

Pens captain Sidney Crosby, a former Art Ross Trophy recipient himself, sympathizes with Malkin's struggles.

"When you're not scoring in games, it makes it tough to build that confidence and get on that roll, or get that momentum," said Crosby. "I think the next-best thing is to get it through practice. He practices hard and he always has. He's going to find a way to score. It's just a matter of time.

"There are always tough times like this that everybody goes through. When you're losing, it's talked about a little bit more, but the best cure for that is everyone being better and winning."

Malkin declined interview requests following Wednesday morning's practice, but Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar -- Malkin's former landlord -- has had a heart-to-heart with his teammate, and says he needs to relax.

"I think he's showing a little frustration that he hasn't scored and he's squeezing his stick too hard and putting so much pressure on himself," Gonchar told "I think once he scores a couple he'll relax and it's going to be easier for him."

During Wednesday's morning skate, Bylsma placed Maxime Talbot on a line with Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko. Talbot helped Malkin out of a slump to begin the playoffs last spring, and Bylsma said he hoped to capitalize on Malkin's comfort level playing with the Game 7 hero of June's Stanley Cup Final against Detroit.

"I'm hoping to get a spark five-on-five from those three," said Bylsma. "While Max was recovering from shoulder surgery, I (envisioned) Max with those other two guys at some point in time. This is not unscripted or unanticipated. I know the three of them will enjoy playing with each other."

In the past, Malkin has been criticized for vanishing when the going got tough. But Bylsma says his main concern these days is making sure the Pens' assistant captain is not trying to do it all himself.

"He's a guy who wants more from himself, expects more from himself, looks at certain aspects of our team and says, 'I need to provide more,' and wears it on his sleeve," said Bylsma. "I know he's got that intention in him, and that's part of the battle with Evgeni. He's got to make sure he plays within the structure, not try to go out and do it himself, not try to give it all back in one power play, or one touch of the puck.

"That's a growth process for him. In the spotlight, and (given) the expectations, and where he is as a leader on our team, it's difficult for him. He's fighting through it and he's desperately trying to get back on his game."
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