PITTSBURGH --There's no getting away from it for the Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin hasn't been himself offensively so far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Philadelphia Flyers are taking a physical approach as they try to slow down the Art Ross Trophy winner, jostling and jarring him whenever possible. They're also shadowing him with 19-year-old center Sean Couturier, who was expected to fill mostly a defensive role in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series yet already has three goals.
It would almost seem to be a mismatch, one of the world's most accomplished offensive players against a teenage forward who wasn't being counted on heavily by coach Peter Laviolette for playing time or for contributions when the season started.
A mismatch it has been -- but not in the way expected. Malkin, who had 12 goals during the Penguins' final 14 regular season games, couldn't find the net as the Flyers won 4-3 in overtime in Game 1 and 8-5 in Game 5, both on the Penguins' home ice.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 2
SOG: 5 | +/-: -5
Couturier, by contrast, was effective defensively against Malkin and became only the second teenager in NHL history to have a Stanley Cup Playoffs hat trick Friday in Game 2, when he was a plus-4 and Malkin was a minus-4.
It's doesn't take a coach or an hockey expert to discern this: Unless the Penguins begin getting Malkin away from Couturier, the series could get away from then very quickly, if it hasn't already. Game 3 will be Sunday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center, with Game 4 there on Wednesday.
The Penguins knew the Maxime Talbot-Couturier-Zac Rinaldo line would be out constantly against Malkin. What they might not have guessed is that it would be this effective.
Malkin has been quiet in this series for a multitude of reasons; he also hasn't been talking with reporters. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday there's nothing wrong with Malkin that some more offensive zone time can't correct.
Bylsma said the two shorthanded goals the Flyers produced in Game 2 against the Penguins' power play unit, which includes Malkin, negated everything that Malkin did well on the ice.
"They're in a tough matchup right now, but I thought our last game was a lot of what we need to be in offensive zone -- they were effective there," Bylsma said Saturday. "We know that's going to be a factor moving forward in Games 3 and 4. They're going to have that matchup and they are going to be faced with that situation. They've got to keep playing through it and be effective."
Talbot had one of the shorthanded goals and was a plus-5 in Game 2, all while displaying the same kind of determined, focused play the Penguins saw from him when he was in their lineup during their Stanley Cup run in 2009.
PENGUINS VS. FLYERS
Couturier's maturity belies his age
Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer
Sean Couturier scored three times on Friday, but personal glory took a backseat to the Flyers' win over the Pens. READ MORE ›
If the Penguins hadn't blown leads of 3-0 in Game 1 and 2-0 and 3-1 in Game 2, Bylsma said, "We'd think [Malkin] was playing better."
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, their other big star, said everyone in uniform needs to play better in Game 3 if only because no one wants to deal with the alternative. The Penguins have never rallied from a playoff series in which they trailed 3-0.
Crosby said it's really not that complicated. The Penguins need to reduce the mistakes they're making defensively and do a better job of controlling the puck when they own it.
"I don't think we need to change a whole lot," Crosby said. "We've made a few mistakes. We gave up two goals (in Game 2) on our power play. You can't do that and expect to win a hockey game. (It's) little mistakes that we need to clean up. We want to manage the puck better, hold onto it little bit more and possess it."
Malkin was held to two shots, or eighth fewer than Flyers star Claude Giroux during his three-goal, three-assist performance in Game 2. Malkin had three shots and was a minus-1 in Game 1.
James Neal, the 40-goal scorer who plays on Makin's line, also has yet to produce a goal in the series and has one goal in nine playoff games with Pittsburgh.
"We knew it was going to be tough with Couturier and Talbot," Neal said. "They also have other guys that want to shut down our top line and stay on us. They've done a good job so far. But we need to go into Philly and do the job, and that's going through that line and being physical with them and doing the right things."
Despite the effectiveness of the Couturier line, Malkin experienced success against Philadelphia during the season, getting three goals and six assists in six games. If the Penguins are to come back and make a series of it, they need Malkin to return to being the elite scorer he was while finding the net 50 times during the season.
"I've just got to try to limit his offense and not give him too much time and space," Couturier said. "So far we've done a good job. But it's going to get tougher and tougher."