Evgeni Malkin had gone three days without experiencing pain in his lower-body injury. Whether or not he would play against the Winnipeg Jets Sunday afternoon would be a game-time decision.
The coaches decided to play Malkin.
It turned out to be a good decision.
To say that Malkin was a dominant force for the Penguins wouldn’t do justice to the performance of the 27-year-old Russian in Pittsburgh’s 6-5 victory against the Jets at CONSOL Energy Center.
“I missed a lot of games and I’m excited to come back and just have fun,” Malkin said. “It was a fun game.”
Malkin, who missed the previous nine games after slamming hard feet-first into the endboards in Detroit on Dec. 14, scored two goals and an assist for three points, recorded four shots, posted a plus-3 rating, created endless scoring chances, helped draw two penalties (one of which the Pens scored) and his passing sprang Sidney Crosby for a breakaway and penalty shot.
“Tough game for Evgeni jumping back in after being out, especially with the injury that he is coming back from,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Stepping back in and producing and helping us win this game is definitely big for his confidence, and big for our team to get him back in there playing like he did.”
Malkin texted Bylsma in the morning to let him know he was ready to play.
“Tough game for me, I’m a little bit tired,” Malkin said. “Thanks to my linemates, they did a great job. We were in the offensive zone. It was a good game for us.”
If there were any concerns about Malkin being slowed by his recent lower-body injury they were quenched on his first shift. Malkin skated at full speed and drove to the net, diving to the ice to swat at a puck.
“I’m not surprised that he came back like that,” linemate Jussi Jokinen said. “He’s a guy who works really hard off the ice and takes care of his conditioning and obviously that skill doesn’t go anywhere when you’re off.”
The Penguins opened the second period trailing 2-0 to Winnipeg. Jokinen forced a turnover in the offensive zone and Malkin found the puck. He snapped a shot into the net past the blocker of Al Montoya to get the Penguins on the board.
“He didn’t look like he missed a game,” James Neal said.
Three minutes later Malkin once again dove for a rebound in the blue paint and drew a slashing penalty on Blake Wheeler. The Penguins would use the ensuing power play to tie the game at 2-2.
In wild back-and-forth affair, the Penguins found themselves trailing 5-4 with over 11 minutes to play in the third period. Pittsburgh was desperate for a goal to even the score.
Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien’s pass was intercepted by Neal. He whipped a shot on goal that Montoya saved. But Malkin was in the right spot to gather the rebound and bury the tying goal.
“I was waiting for Neal to pass to me, but he never passes to me,” Malkin joked. “I knew he would shoot. I stopped in front of the net. I saw the puck come in slow. I poke-checked it with my one hand and the puck went in.”
Malkin, Neal and Jokinen combined for five goals and eight points.
“Tonight with ‘Geno’ getting back in there, it’s almost immediate the scoring chances they generate with each other, “Bylsma said. “All three of them stepped back together and produced opportunities.
“The three of them together are making a bid for no practice time.”