After the skate, Evgeni Malkin came into the locker room to speak with the media. He had broken a six-game pointless streak with his primary assist on Sidney Crosby’s power-play goal in Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over Tampa in Game 3 last night, and I asked him how he felt about his performance.
“I think good,” he answered. “The first period it’s probably a little bit not great, a couple turnovers for myself. But I think after the second and third I had more confidence, I felt so much better. It’s a little bit hot here, it’s a little bit tough to play. But I like my game, I like how the whole team played.”
However, Malkin feels that there are still areas they need to improve – most notably limiting turnovers and their play in the neutral zone.
“It’s one of the best games, I think, but I think we can play better,” he said. “We know that. We’re still a good team. Everyone is playing 200 percent right now. I like everyone here. I like what we do in the locker room. It’s a very tight team right now. We understand how to play against Tampa and we like what we do.”
Malkin had been centering Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel before sustaining an upper-body injury on March 11 at Columbus. Nick Bonino slotted in for the Pens’ next game on March 13 at NY Rangers and, well, you know the rest. They combined for two more tallies in Game 3 to give them 82 points (31G-51A) in 29 games.
“We liked the line when Geno was playing with ‘Haggy’ and Phil before he got hurt, and then when ‘Bones’ stepped in when Geno was on the sidelines, that line really established a lot of chemistry,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “Our thought process when Geno came back into our lineup was well, this is going to make us a more balanced team because now we have the ability to spread some of our elite skill throughout our lineup. It presents potential matchup challenges for our opponents. It gives us a deeper group up front with offensive threats throughout our line, and that's what it's allowed us to do.”
Since Malkin returned in Game 2 of the First Round against the NY Rangers there has been a fair amount of mixing and matching when it comes to his line. The Pens have used Chris Kunitz, Eric Fehr, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary on Malkin’s flanks in different combinations while also deploying him as a wing alongside Crosby at certain points in games.
But Malkin doesn’t care about the relative lack of consistency for himself personally. At this point, he would play goalie if that’s what was best for the group.
“It’s the best line right now, Bonino, Hagelin and Kessel,” Malkin said. “I understand that and I’m okay. I can play everywhere, every line. When Coach likes me to play wing or center, it doesn’t matter for me because we want just one thing, we want to win. If Coach says play wing, I will. It doesn’t matter for me. I just want to help the team to win.”
Malkin pointed out it’s not just the HBK Line who’s going. He feels that every single guy in their lineup has been doing their part to step up when the opportunity presents itself.
“We have 20 guys and all 20 guys are amazing players,” he said. “(Matt) Cullen, ‘Fehrsy.’ It doesn’t matter If sometimes I play with these two guys. It doesn’t matter. We have 20 guys and All 20 guys have one job, to win the game. I like each guy and we did an amazing job last game but we understand how important tomorrow’s game is. It’s a huge game for us and we know Tampa is a great team, and we’re ready.”
Winger Patric Hornqvist left Game 3 in the third period after blocking a shot and head coach Mike Sullivan said he was being evaluated today.
“We think he's making progress,” Sullivan said. “We'll see how he is tomorrow, but I don't envision it being an issue.”
On the other side, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop practiced with the team for the first time since being taken off the ice in a stretcher during Game 1. While he’s making progress, Bolts head coach Jon Cooper doesn’t envision him being ready to go for Game 4.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who underwent surgery to treat a blood clot in his arm on April 4 and was given a 1-3 month timetable for recovery, also won’t be available for the game. While he’s hoping to play at some point in the series, he also pointed out that there’s still a real possibility he won’t play at all in the postseason.
“It's tough when you have two different parts of the spectrum. It's either you're going to be able to play or it's just not safe to play,” he said. “So we still haven't come to that decision yet. That's going to take a lot of information gathering and a lot of different opinions, and obviously, I don't know when that decision is going to be made for sure to either rule in or rule out.”
Malkin, on if he could have imagined the team would look this good back in November and December: “It’s a tough question. Of course not, maybe, when we look back. When Mike Sullivan came to the team I believe we changed our game, we changed our system a little bit and every game we played so much better. We didn’t win every game but we believed we had a great team. We got a couple new guys, (Trevor) Daley, Hagelin, they’re amazing guys. They give the team more speed. After we signed these guys we started to play so much better. We started to play every game better and we saw last month, we won like 15 games in like 17 games. And I started to believe we can win the Stanley Cup.”
Malkin, on if it’s fun seeing the team perform to their potential like they did in the second period of Game 3: “Yeah, of course it’s fun to play like this. We used our speed. In the second period it’s very important to change. We did a great job last game. We changed quick, the second line went twice, it’s fresh. Play in the offensive zone, it’s what we want to do. Of course it’s fun to play like this, but we need to score more (laughs) because it’s like for two periods it was 0-0. We dominated but it’s just 0-0, it’s not fun when you know you dominated the second period but we scored with like 10 seconds left. It’s pretty hard, but it’s good, we dominated and we scored. We were like, we deserve this goal, you know? We’ll try to play the same game tomorrow. Use our speed, good changes and play fast.”
Crosby, on what Tampa Bay might do to try and slow them down: “They play a really fast game too. It’s just a battle of who’s going to get more zone time and possess the puck. That’s really what the big challenge is for both teams. You’re going to have momentum shifts. You saw early on especially in the first there they created a ton of chances and we were able to kind of settle and get some chances eventually ourselves. That will be the constant struggle back and forth.”
Schultz, on what the trade to Pittsburgh has meant for him and his career: “A second chance. My confidence was pretty low near the end of my time in Edmonton. It just gave me more confidence, even before I played a game I got more confidence just being in a new environment. I have nothing against Edmonton, I enjoyed my time there. But sometimes players need a change of scenery and I think this has helped me.”
Kessel, on Jim Rutherford: “He traded for me and I’m happy to be here. I’ve never been this far, so it’s a great experience and just trying to keep going.”
Hagelin, on Kessel’s performance in Game 3: “He was a machine all night. He skated well and just overall, got a lot of chances. Hit the crossbar that one time and he had a great game.”
Bonino, on if his line is enjoying this run: “No, not at all (laughs).”
Jon Cooper, on the HBK Line’s speed and the other problems they present: “Well, you look at their team, and you got the Crosby line. You've got the Malkin line. And they're the kind of line that goes a little bit unnoticed, and I think that's probably helped Phil out quite a bit. Because you think about him in Toronto, he was the guy, and now he comes to Pittsburgh, and he's just one of the guys. And I think that can help a player out. He's been pretty darn good playoff performer, even before he got to Pittsburgh. But they've got a really good mix with that line because there's a guy who can score in Phil, who got really good speed. He's got deceptive speed. He's quick. Then you've got Bonino, who's a really smart player and he sees the ice and does a lot of great things like that. Then you've got Hagelin, who's really fast. He's a worker, and he agitates. And you kind of mix those three guys together, and it's a pretty cohesive group. But you sit there and think of the lines that they keep rolling out, there's just another line that you have to worry about. When you can go three and four lines deep -- and something we've been able to do -- it's a tough matchup for teams. They're just another case -- and plus they're feeling it too. They're in one of those playoff runs where they're feeling it, and when you are going like that, good things are going to happen for you.”