Ryan Malone is having a breakout season.
And, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the Penguins’ lineup ravaged by injuries throughout this campaign, the team looked to other players to step up their contributions. Malone has been one of those guys.
Since Jan. 1, he has 31 points (15+16) and had scored goals in three-straight home games heading into Thursday’s battle with Tampa Bay.
“I think maybe when Sid went down with the ankle injury, I knew it was a great opportunity to step up and show the coaches and everyone what I thought was always there,” Malone said. “You just have to keep playing and, right now, I am just getting those bounces around the net. I still think I can keep adding different things to my game to make me a better player. It’s only my fourth year in the league, so I am going to keep trying to improve every year.”
He’s definitely taken a step this year. With 45 points (24+21) in 68 games, the 28-year-old Malone is on pace for another solid season. He already surpassed his career high for goals (22) and is on pace to set a personal record for points.
“For the most part, every year I have improved as a hockey player one way or another. I am just trying to keep improving every year,” he said. “The more experience you get in the league, I think the better off you are as a player. It’s a lot of the little things like learning how to take care of yourself on the road and learning to plan for certain roadtrips and certain situations. I think that has a big part to do with just improving as a hockey player as well.”
Malone has found a home in front of the net on the power play. There, he has used his 6-foot-4, 224-pound frame as an advantage against opposing defenders and goaltenders. He ranks third on the Penguins with nine power-play goals.
“Playing with Geno or Sid, you just have to get open and those guys will find you. On the power play, I just have to stand in front of the net because guys are getting pucks through,” he said. “Obviously, I wouldn’t have any goals if it wasn’t for everybody else. It’s just been working out this year where I have good chemistry with the players around me and I am just trying to do the little things right.”
And, most of those goals aren’t exactly highlight-reel material.
“For whatever reason, I peaked during my rookie year with pretty goals,” he said with a laugh. “I’d rather take the goal now where the goalie’s not really in the net and I just kind of chip it in. We have enough guys who can make those pretty goals, so I’d rather be the guy in front of the net and get those dirty ones right now.”
Getting selected for duty on the power play has been a reward for Malone.
“Last year, I wasn’t on the power play. So, this year, it was a big opportunity for putting me in front of the net,” he said. “I wouldn’t have as many goals if I wasn’t on the power play. So, I am just getting the opportunity offensively to produce and am looked upon to play hard and get some points every night and I am happy to be in that role right now.”
Crosby has been impressed with Malone’s progress.
“I think it’s been a stepping stone process for him. Last year, he took some good strides,” he said. “I think getting the opportunity to play on the power play has helped him also, as far as confidence and really playing to his strengths, which are his size and his hands. If you put him there in front of the net, there will be pucks there and he’ll be hard to move. With his hands, he can create a lot around the net and he’s getting the opportunities and making the most with them.”
In addition, Malone is tied for the Penguins lead with four game-winning goals.
“That can be a weird stat – if the other team scores one goal late, sometimes you have a game winner,” he said. “It’s a nice little stat to have, but you just want to always be relied upon to produce when the time is needed.”
Malone ranks among the NHL’s top 15 players in shooting percentage (16.9 percent), too. However, he is contributing more than just scoring. He’s getting quality minutes on the ice. Malone played 20 or more minutes twice in his first 41 games this season, but has played 20 or more minutes in 21 of his last 27 games. And, he’s one of the team’s top penalty killers and ranks among the team leaders in hits as well.
“He’s really made a name for himself as a power forward and a tough guy to play against. He has shown he can play a physical game and a finesse game at the same time,” Crosby said. “I think as his teammates, we’re all proud to see him do so well, especially for him to find that knack around the net that he has. He has really established himself as a guy who is hard to move there and a guy who can make you pay if you don’t cover him there. I think as any player, you want to see your fellow teammates do well and we’re really happy to see him be successful.”
Malone attributes much of his success to the offseason training he has done in Minnesota.
“It’s my third year working out with Kevin Ziegler in Minnesota. You can’t just give one good summer and expect a whole change. That takes a couple summers,” he said. “I am finally seeing the benefits of working out with him and the training I am doing in the offseason is finally paying off for me, I think.
“I feel stronger and faster and that just helps your confidence overall of what you can do out there. When you’re feeling tired and slow, there’s not much you really feel like doing. I think Kevin has definitely done a great job getting me ready for this season. It’s a long season as well and I have to stay on top of it and make sure I am doing all the little things off the ice to keep me going in the right direction.”
Malone’s mental approach has improved each year as well.
“I think so. Your first year, you’re not sure how to prepare yourself for certain games or a certain stretch of games where you’re playing a lot and you might get mentally tired and wear down,” he said. “You try to look ahead at the schedule to see what’s coming so you can kind of mentally prepare for each game. A big part is just preparing for each game mentally and get ready to give your all every night and be a difference maker.”
Malone is certainly making a difference for the Penguins.