Last year, Evgeni Malkin
couldn’t have asked for more in terms of consistency. He never left his natural center position, and played the entire season with James Neal
and Jussi Jokinen
This year, it’s been a different story for the 28-year-old. After missing all of training camp with an undisclosed injury, head coach Mike Johnston had Malkin start the season at right wing with Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis to ease him back into game action.
After Malkin moved back to the middle, he was flanked by several different combinations of linemates. Dupuis, Blake Comeau, Jayson Megna, Chris Kunitz, Nick Spaling, and Patric Hornqvist all saw time alongside Malkin.
Then in the Pens’ last game on Saturday against Ottawa, Malkin was moved over to the left wing with Sutter and Comeau in an attempt to jumpstart the team’s offense after a 3-0 loss to the Canucks on Thursday.
That means Malkin has now played all three forward positions this season, with at least seven different teammates (not counting the in-game adjustments that see him with Sidney Crosby after a penalty kill, for example). But despite the inconsistency, Malkin has been consistently excellent. He's having a terrific year.
Malkin scored twice in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win over the Senators to give him a team-leading 14 goals in 26 games. He has eight goals in his last 11 games dating back to Nov. 15 against the Rangers, when he had a goal and an assist. Since that night, Malkin is tied with Chicago’s Patrick Kane for the NHL lead with 15 points, while his eight goals place third behind only the Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Florida’s Nick Bjugstad (nine each).
Malkin's eight power-play tallies lead the league, and he’s tied with Steven Stamkos for fourth in the NHL with 32 points – just two behind second-place Crosby.
That’s eclipsing the pace Malkin was on during his most recent Art Ross Trophy season back in 2011-12, where he had just 24 points through 21 games at this point in the year. He has tallied at least a point in all but three of the Penguins’ games.
“It’s a good question,” Malkin said after the game when asked how he has been playing so well through all of the constant changes. “I just try to use my linemates. Last game (against Vancouver) we didn’t play good. I didn’t play good. It’s not every game. Just today it was a little better."
But it’s not just the numbers that Malkin has been putting up. It’s the way he looks on the ice. He looks completely dominant out there. And that’s exactly what you want to see from one of your franchise cornerstone players with all of the injuries the Pens are dealing with, as Kunitz, Hornqvist, Dupuis, Beau Bennett and Kris Letang are all currently out of the lineup.
“I feel good,” Malkin said. “We understand how tough it is right now. It’s a tough time because we lost a lot of good players.
"(I have) more confidence, I feel fresh. I feel great and I just try to shoot the puck and control the puck and use my game.”
Crosby has noticed that renewed energy in his teammate.
"He just plays with a lot of energy. You see the way he competes and when he’s doing that, you can’t stop him," Crosby said. "So his energy level is just so high. And when you’re thinking about last year, coming off the Olympic year and the tough schedule, I think he did run into some injuries last year too. So I think he just looks refreshed out there. Looks like he’s having fun on the ice and competing hard and that’s how you want to play the game. That’s when he’s at his best."
They both know they have to raise their level of play and elevate their game to make sure the Pens keep winning games with their depleted lineup.
“I think it’s a very important moment for us,” Malkin said when asked how much responsibility he and Crosby feel to step up with all the injuries. “We (need to provide) leadership. We know everyone looks to us.”
And they’re delivering.