Jussi Jokinen could not have made a stronger case for himself to fill the open spot on Evgeni Malkin
and James Neal
’s line in his first look there on Saturday – scoring a natural hat trick in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 preseason loss to Columbus at CONSOL Energy Center.
“I think we were able to find chemistry right away,” Jokinen said. “I think we were able to create some good chances through all three periods and were able to score those three goals. And I think we still had some good looks in the third to get the game tied, too.”
Going into training camp, head coach Dan Bylsma said Jokinen would get an opportunity with Malkin and Neal at some point – referencing his history playing alongside stars like Mike Modano in Dallas and Eric Staal in Carolina as a major reason for slotting him there.
“He’s a guy who’s played with very skilled players throughout his career and done very well,” Bylsma repeated this morning. “He’s done extremely well there.”
And Jokinen did extremely well – no make that excellent – today. But it wasn’t just that Jokinen scored three goals while playing on that line – it was the way he and his mates, Malkin in particular, connected to make the plays.
On the first one, Malkin received a feed from Robert Bortuzzo on the right side of the ice and headed into the zone with Jokinen providing the center drive and Neal skating down the left lane. Malkin semi-sauced a pass through a defender’s stick to Jokinen, who managed to get his blade on the bouncing puck and whack a knuckler on his backhand past Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
On the second, Malkin made an absolutely sick no-look, backhand pass while completely facing away from the net to Jokinen in the slot – who deked to his backhand and neatly tucked the puck around Bobrovsky.
On the third, Brooks Orpik sent a pass up the boards to a marked Neal, who whipped a pass to Jokinen in stride. He carried into the zone and snapped a shot through Bobrovsky.
Three goals, three absolutely gorgeous sequences. It was like Jokinen was always in the right place at the right time, in perfect position. He had chemistry with both guys and read off them well, but especially with Malkin.
Jokinen told us earlier today how he felt that line played a more European-style of hockey under Malkin’s lead, which is something he was looking forward to being from Finland and honing his game in the Finnish Elite League for years. He reiterated that postgame. We’ve seen the Russian-born Malkin excel with European-born wingers on his line in the past like Ruslan Fedotenko and Petr Sykora, and after tonight it looks like Jokinen could complement him the same way with the skill aspect to his game along with his hockey sense and vision.
“I think the game a little bit the same way since we are both from Europe and have that little European style in our game,” Jokinen said. “I was able to read a little bit off him on a couple of my goals and he made some good plays. … I think ‘Geno’ plays a little bit more of an east-west game, (so you must) have your stick on the ice all the time because he can really find you.”
With the way they were finding each other, I was curious to know if there was a lot of verbal communication. Jokinen said there wasn’t – it was more mental.
“Depending on if you play with ‘Geno’ or with Brandon Sutter or with (Tanner Glass) or (Craig Adams), I think you have to be smart,” said Jokinen, who has made a career out of his versatility and being able to play any forward position on any line. “They all are different kinds of players, so you need to be able to kind of change your game a little bit. Like Geno and ‘Suttsy,’ they are two completely different players. Depending on who you’re going to play with, you need to think a little bit more.”
Now, we have to keep in mind it’s a long season. Beau Bennett has also proven to be a fit on that line when he has gotten the chance to play there and complements Malkin and Neal well, so it’s likely that they’ll both see time there throughout the next few months. But it’s definitely a good problem for coach Bylsma to have, knowing he now has two players who can contribute playing next to two of his stars and make that line into an absolutely lethal weapon.
“I think Beau played (the first preseason game) with James and Geno and played real well and showed a lot in that game,” Bylsma said. “I think they had eight scoring chances as a group that game. They didn’t put the puck in the net to the degree Jussi did tonight, but Jussi is a guy who, as mentioned before, has played with some very good players in his career, done very well with some high-end talented players. Has had experience in that regard. I’m not surprised to see him be able to fit in and play on that line and add and have some chemistry. I think the other thing about Jussi is that he is extremely intelligent player. He knows how to play with and read off of good players and showed that tonight.”
While Jokinen has said numerous times he will play wherever the coaches think he is the best fit, when asked point-blank if he was more comfortable playing in the top six, he replied, “I think every guy wants to play first line. If you ask me, that’s where every hockey player wants to play. (To play) that first line or in the top six and have those offensive chances and play a little bit more – if you ask me, I’d rather play top six, for sure.”