Ever since he first underwent knee surgery back in June, Evgeni Malkin had been working tirelessly towards a return to the Penguins lineup for months on end.
And when that day finally arrived on this beautiful Wednesday in Anaheim, the hardest part was the anticipation and buildup leading into the game itself. Seven p.m. local time couldn't come fast enough for the 35-year-old center, as he anxiously went through his usual routines while preparing for the start of his 16th season.
"Because I waited for this moment for so long," Malkin said. "I knew I had morning skate and I knew I was going to play tonight. And it's lunch, nap - but so many things in my head, you know? Bad things, good things, but I always think about the game. Of course, when I step on the ice, the bad things are out, and I'm just focused to play."
Malkin ended up having a simply magnificent debut despite coming off such a long layoff, scoring twice and adding an assist for a three-point night in Pittsburgh's 4-1 win over the Ducks at Honda Center, their 11th victory in their past 12 games. After a performance like that, it was positive vibes only for the Penguins superstar.
"I feel awesome," Malkin said. "It's a long process for me. It's the longest break in my life. Of course, I'm glad to be with the team. We win and score a couple goals, it's amazing."
Head coach Mike Sullivan said they believed Malkin would have an immediate impact, and he didn't disappoint, with his line - which consisted of Jeff Carter on his left and Kasperi Kapanen on his right - scoring on their first shift of the night.
The sequence started with Malkin gracefully gaining the offensive zone and recording a shot on goal. From there, Marcus Pettersson pinched in to force a turnover, with Carter burying the loose puck with a quick turning snipe.
"Coach told me before the game play short, play simple and you'll be fine," Malkin said. "I tried to do it."
Malkin said he felt better as the night went along, and the second period was when he really went to work. The power play is an area where Sullivan and his teammates have been saying Malkin would have an especially notable impact with his elite offensive ability, and he did exactly that.
"His playmaking ability, his one-timer… the way he thinks the game and his ability to execute… I just think he brings another dimension to our power play that makes us that much harder to defend against," Sullivan said. "He also brings a certain level of instinctive play that's unpredictable. It's hard to prepare for, it's hard to game plan."
The one-timer in particular was on display for his first goal, scored just 3:23 in. Malkin took a pass from Kris Letang and dragged it to the center point, where he wound up and blasted a shot on goal. Sidney Crosby, who was providing the net-front presence, jumped impressively high so that the puck could get through. That tally stood as the game-winner, the 74th of Malkin's career - tying him with Mario Lemieux for the second-most in Penguins history, and just four away from Jaromir Jagr's franchise record of 78.
"I could go on and on about the impact that he has and how he makes us a better team," Sullivan said. "But for me, I think that's why this team has had the success that it's had over the years, with the core players here and Sid and Geno being at being at the very forefront of that. It's just for me, they've been the best one-two punch in the league for a decade-plus."
The play on Malkin's second goal, which came at the 14:38 mark, started with him carrying into the slot and the rebound deflecting behind the net. Malkin circled back to the front, where he was in perfect position to re-direct a feed from defenseman John Marino.
"I'm not trying to celebrate too hard. Just have fun," Malkin said with a grin. "We have a couple good chances on the power play and my partners, they gave me a nice pass. I try and do my job, shoot the puck on the power play, play simple when we play 5-on-5."
Malkin picked up his third point of the night by setting up Carter for his second goal of the night, scored into the empty net. Malkin laughingly denied that he was thinking pass first on the play, instead exclaiming, "No, I think shoot first!"
He explained that if he had gotten closer to the red line, he probably could have shot, but worried about icing the puck. So instead, he fed it over to Carter, who had more time and space and a better look being a right-handed shot.
"I'm always being nice to my partners, you know what I mean?" Malkin joked. "But I hope I score a hat trick soon."
The trio combined for seven points, with Kapanen collecting two assists. His chemistry with Malkin was already well-established, and the decision to place Carter on their line was a smart one. The 37-year-old veteran played a huge role in helping Malkin feel comfortable in his first game back.
"We wanted to make sure that we surrounded Geno with the right people that could help him have success," Sullivan said.
Not only did Carter bring a scoring touch - he brought a defensive conscience as well. Malkin praised Carter for not only taking a lot of faceoffs - he went 9-3 in the dot - but for handling the responsibility of playing down low in the defensive zone at times. Whenever Carter did that, Malkin would rotate into his spot on the wing.
"Cartsy, he played an unbelievable game tonight, for sure," Malkin said. "It's easy to play with him. I think we have good chemistry tonight, and I hope we play a long time together."
Sullivan credited the strength and conditioning staff, medical team and skills and skating development coach Ty Hennes and of course, Malkin himself for making sure he would be able to hit the ground running upon his return. And No. 71 believes it will just keep getting better from here.
"It's just the first game, after a long break it's a couple turnovers for sure," Malkin said. "Next game, I hope I play more and I feel better physically. But it's still a process. It's not perfect, but how many games left, like 40-plus games? It's a long season and I hope we get in playoffs and I do my best. Just happy the first game is done, we win and just keep going."