If you ask Evgeni Malkin, he’ll tell you that his tremendous November happened in large part because of something that took place on the 9th.
|The close friends and linemates at the 2012 All-Star Game.
That’s when winger James Neal returned to the lineup after leaving the season opener with an upper-body injury, and that night against the Blues was an instant, obvious reminder of just how excellent those two are together.
“We saw it as soon as James stepped on the ice in St. Louis,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “It was not at top speed for James, but there were 2-3 chances where the puck was off his stick and on the net. They didn’t go in, but you saw that immediately.”
They started going in very soon after.
Malkin, 27, and Neal, 26, are the NHL’s top two scorers since that evening. Neal leads the league with eight goals in the 12 games since his return, while his 16 points are tied for second with Chicago’s Patrick Kane behind Malkin’s 21 points (4G-17A) in that same span.
Overall, Malkin – named the NHL's 'Second Star' of the month on Tuesday – finished November with 25 points in 15 games. His 21 assists were a career-high for a single month and the most any NHL player has amassed since Wayne Gretzky did so with the Los Angeles Kings in January 1996. He completed that page of the calendar by scoring a goal and three assists in Pittsburgh’s last game, a 5-1 win over Florida on Saturday, to put him one behind teammate Sidney Crosby in the NHL scoring race.
When that was brought to Malkin’s attention, he responded by thanking Neal and crediting the winger for his resurgence back into one of the league's most dominant, dangerous forces both on the scoresheet and off.
“’Nealer’ came back and I started playing better,” said Malkin.
That wasn’t the first time Malkin publicly expressed his gratitude for his longtime linemate that month – he also did so a week earlier after Neal helped him snap his career-long 15-game goalless streak. In the second period of a game against the Islanders on Nov. 22, Malkin stickhandled through a sea of white jerseys to get the puck over to a wide-open Neal directly in front of the net – who uncharacteristically decided to pass up the shot and slide it right back to his surprised center so he could dribble the puck past goalie Kevin Poulin and end his lengthy drought.
“I was not waiting because he had a breakaway, and I’m not ready,” Malkin said. “‘Nealsy’ passed me back and I just at the last second shot the puck and it was a surprise to me.”
“Thanks to him, for sure."
To be fair, it's not that Malkin had not been playing poorly prior to Neal's return. He had been making a major impact on every game he played in and was still producing; he just wasn't putting the puck in the back of the net himself. But 15 games without a goal is a long time for a lot of players, but it is especially so for the man who led the league with 50 in the last full season, has produced four total 30-plus goal seasons and has topped 100 points three times while winning a pair of Art Ross Trophies as the NHL's leading scorer.
The chances were there; but the goals hadn't been. So finally breaking through for one against the Islanders was big for Malkin, and Neal knew it would be. And now Malkin's been even bigger for the Penguins.
“The fact that he got that first one, got the monkey off his back – now he can play," Crosby said. "He looks like he's having a lot of fun out there. He's not thinking about it. He's shooting when he needs to shoot, passing when he needs to pass. It's good for us.”
A PASSER AND A SHOOTER
When asking a number of Penguins players why Malkin and Neal have been so successful as linemates, which they've been since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, they all had a similar response.
“We all know Geno is a passer and Nealer is a shooter, and he puts the puck in the net,” winger Pascal Dupuis said. “They both know what each other can bring out of the other guy.”
“They have contrasting styles, which I think make them really good,” agreed winger Chris Kunitz, who played on their line during that magical first season where Malkin scored 50 goals and won both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies and Neal hit the 40-goal mark for the first time. “Geno is a puck possession guy who can make fancy plays and get pucks into areas where guys like Nealer, with a quick, great release, can really benefit.”
We all know Malkin can score. He has a wicked shot of his own to go along with his stickhandling ability and has used all of that to record a lot of goals in this league. But right now, it's Malkin's aptitude for getting the puck on his teammates' blades that's powered his return back to his 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy form.
"I think he’s still, with his passing ability, a little underrated with how good of a distributor of the puck he is," Neal said. "He puts the puck on your stick when you don’t think he can and does that on a continuous basis."
Neal was tagged as a young power forward with size, speed and skill when he first came to Pittsburgh. Almost three years later, he's still all of that – but is now most well-known for being one of the NHL’s deadliest snipers. That shoot-first mentality is something Neal has always had, but playing with Malkin forced him to perfect it so that he is ready to release the puck from his blade at all times, in no time. As Neal mentioned, Malkin is the kind of player who has the ability to make impossible plays anywhere and everywhere on the ice. And because of that, Neal had to learn quickly how to be prepared.
“It’s gotten better since being here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Obviously the coaching staff teaches you things here and they help you, but when you’re playing with guys like Geno you have to up your game. He expects you to and expects a lot out of you, which he should. It’s been awesome to be able to play with him.”
Neal’s had to work to improve his game, but he hasn’t had to overthink it playing with Malkin thanks to their inexplicable chemistry.
“You know what, we kind of just clicked right away,” Neal said. “We started playing together and it just kind of worked. Some guys have that ability to just find that knack for each other and we have that. It’s been awesome to play with him. He’s a lot of fun to play with.
"I just try to get (the puck) to him as much as possible, as quick as possible. When the puck’s in his hands, good things are going to happen and that’s something I found out pretty quick when I started playing with him."
Bylsma said there are parts of Neal’s game that are probably overlooked, including his work ethic, speed and the way he creates room for Malkin to shoot, something the center says he knows he needs to do more. But that rare ability to get open and shoot the puck cannot be.
“He complements Geno in a lot of ways,” Bylsma said. “Geno needs to get the puck in certain areas of the ice and James is very good at doing that. He’s also real good at getting open and the finish part of it. Geno creates a lot of space, he can attack with his speed and his ability to go through and around people is exceptional. And then James kind of is lurking around those areas and gets the pass, picks up the puck and it’s in the back of the net. We’ve seen that numerous times in the last two weeks.”CONSTANT COMMUNICATION
The captain described it a little bit differently.
"(Neal) just kind of follows Geno around," Crosby said with a big grin. "He knows the puck’s going to be around there and he doesn’t need much time to get it away. It's a good match."
On the bench during games, Malkin and Neal chatter often and animatedly between shifts, much to the amusement of their teammates.
“I don’t know what’s said, but they do talk a lot,” Crosby laughed.
Neal says that for the two of them in particular, constant communication is just what works.
“We communicate a lot on the bench and talk and it’s just little things, if I thought I was open here or if I can get on the puck there and just little stuff like that,” he said. “We’re always talking and I think that’s what makes a good line, is when you have that communication and when you’re always talking and when you’re on the same page. If you think he could have got you there, let him know. We go back and forth a lot. I think maybe at the start, we’d fight a little (bit too) much. But now it’s a little different. And we’ve got a good feel for each other.”LIKE BROTHERS
They may not fight as much as they did, but the Penguins say Malkin and Neal definitely still like to engage in some good-natured ribbing. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
compared their relationship to one between siblings, saying, “they love each other, but they just fight all the time.”
They do have a lot of fun playfully chirping and teasing each other, which we’ve seen them do on Twitter in the past much to the fans' delight – most notably with Malkin’s nickname for Neal, which is “Lazy.”
“He’s a funny guy,” Neal said with a smile. “Obviously I like to joke around a lot too, and we go back and forth quite a bit. He’s got a good sense of humor.”
All bickering and bantering aside, Malkin and Neal have the utmost respect for one another – and they know just how important they are to each other. Malkin is saying it now, and Neal was saying it back when he signed his six-year extension two seasons ago, as he stated that his chemistry with Malkin was a huge factor in getting the deal done.
“They don’t hang out that much away from the rink, but as soon as they step in the building, they like to mess around with each other, ‘Lazy’ and whatever they call each other,” Dupuis said. “It’s all in good fun. We all know they respect and they like each other, for sure.”
In fact, Kunitz believes their brother-like dynamic off the ice is what helps them be dynamic on the ice.
“They obviously enjoy playing together,” Kunitz said. “They have a good chemistry, even in the locker room – a friendly banter back-and-forth where they like to have fun with each other. I think that carries into their good success out on the ice.”
Success that Neal hopes won’t stop anytime soon.
“We kind of just feed off each other and use each other as much as we can and it’s worked out great,” Neal said. “And hopefully we have continued success.”