Head coach Mike Johnston has said that Phil Kessel would also get a look with Evgeni Malkin during training camp. And while there’s still a chance Johnston could tweak his lines to make that happen on Friday in Carolina, with the way Malkin’s line with Sergei Plotnikov and Patric Hornqvist has been playing, it’s looking like the three of them just might end up staying together.
“You guys saw it, Malkin and Plotnikov and Hornqvist were a very good line,” said
Johnston on Wednesday after the trio combined for two goals and six points in Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday. “I don’t want to break up good chemistry just to try and see if anything else works. If I like what I’m seeing, then we’ll probably stick with it.”
That would be just fine with them.
Malkin and Hornqvist, a pair that the coaching staff has liked together for some time, were already comfortable with each other both on and off the ice heading into training camp.
“I know him a lot. We’re good friends here,” Malkin said. “And I mean, of course it’s easy when you start to play together early. It’s good chemistry. I played with him a little bit last year, I know he’s a fast, strong guy. It’s all good right now. We have time before the season and I enjoy playing with him.”
Hornqvist, who likes to joke and mess around with Malkin, has learned what it takes to complement the talented center entering his second season with the team after being traded here last summer from Nashville.
“You just try to get open,” Hornqvist said. “He’s so good on his stick and on his feet. He can make things happen from nothing. So you just always be ready and always try to get open. It looks like we’re going to play with each other and we want to have a good start and help this team to win.”
Meanwhile, Plotnikov has been a pleasant surprise fitting in on that left wing, especially as training camp progresses and the Russian forward gets used to life in North America.
“I’m getting adjusted well,” Plotnikov said through a translator on Wednesday. “I’m getting used to the partners on the ice. Getting used to the ice. Everything is going well.”
Plotnikov was an X-factor heading into training camp, as the 25-year-old had played his entire career in the Kontinental Hockey League before buying out the last year of his contract to come overseas and join the Pens organization.
What Johnston has liked the most about Plotnikov so far is how he uses his 6-foot-2, 202-pound frame to his advantage, especially down low – something he feels is a big complement to Malkin.
“Most think a lot of European players aren’t physical, they’re more skilled,” Johnston said. “And that can be the case. But he’s a little bit of a blend type of player because he’s a hard player to play against and I just like when he has the puck, he’s really tough to knock off the puck. He’s strong on it. And Geno’s going to find open space, you know that. So once they start to get a feel for each other, I think you’ll start to see a few more open opportunities around the net.”
As training camp has progressed, Plotnikov’s game has continued to improve and he looks more and more comfortable in every aspect of the game.
“He’s fit in better and better every night that I see him,” Johnston said.
Malkin has noticed the improvement as well.
“It’s tough, it’s just his first year,” Malkin said. “But every game he looks better. Controls pucks, is stronger. He goes to the net, gets the first goal of the game (on Tuesday against Tampa Bay), it’s very important. It’s more confidence.”
Plotnikov credits both Malkin and Hornqvist for constantly communicating with him as they try to build on their chemistry as a line.
“I’m getting used to playing with those guys,” he said. “They’re helping me a lot on the ice. They’re telling me what to do and where to go. They’re a big help.”