For Penguins, it takes a village to help Evgeni Malkin return to form
By playing a physically and emotionally engaged style of hockey, recording a pair of assists and fighting fellow superstar Steven Stamkos when tensions boiled over in the third period, Evgeni Malkin helped lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to a rousing 4-2 victory over the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.
Malkin sat out Thursday’s practice in Cranberry for maintenance after a grueling game the night before. When he returns to the ice, his teammates would like to return the favor.
Nothing would help the Penguins reestablish themselves as Stanley Cup contenders quicker than a return to form for Malkin, who has been stuck in a slump for the better part of the last three months.
Malkin will need to rediscover his confidence and simplify his game in order to get back to his customary all-star level of production, but he won’t be doing so on an island.
His teammates can lend a helping hand.
For most of the past three seasons, Malkin has found his greatest success with Carl Hagelin playing on his left wing.
For the past two games, Malkin and Phil Kessel have played with Bryan Rust on their left side. Rust’s game is similar to Hagelin’s. He has the speed and tenacity to create space for his highly skilled linemates.
“He does,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He brings similar attributes. He can really skate. He’s good on the forecheck. He’s a good puck pursuit guy. He forces turnovers. He has the ability to catch the rush if they get caught in the offensive zone. He’s sound defensively. He has a lot of similar attributes. We thought that might be a good fit with Geno and Phil and the way that they play. It could be complementary.”
Rust said he’ll gladly sign up for that type of complementary relationship with Malkin.
When the Russian superstar has his game going, like he did Wednesday night, Rust will be happy to ride the wave.
“I think it just fires everyone up,” Rust said. “He’s obviously a guy who’s a tremendous part of this team. Every time you see a guy like that get the fire under his (rear) lit a little bit, for lack of a better word, it’s good. It gave a lot of energy throughout our team and our line, I thought we carried it over throughout the rest of the game.”
When Malkin is slumping, Rust will do his part to pick his teammate up.
“Speaking from experience, when you’re struggling, it always helps to have linemates who are working their (tails) off to try to help you out and maybe help you play a little more simple so you don’t have to worry about too much out there,” Rust said.
The same concept applies to the defensemen playing behind Malkin.
When Malkin has been on the ice with Kris Letang at even strength this season, the Penguins have averaged 34.2 shots per 60 minutes. When Malkin has played with Jack Johnson, that figure slips to 31.3.
It’s not a huge difference, but it’s significant nonetheless. Malkin seems to thrive when he has a puck-moving specialist playing behind him.
It stands to reason, then, that no player on the Penguins roster will benefit more from the return of Justin Schultz from a broken leg than Malkin.
Schultz practiced with the team Wednesday in a no-contact jersey as he inches closer to being cleared.
Schultz and his teammates know how much impact an engaged, galloping Malkin can have on the outcome of hockey games.
“Trust me. It’s what I want to do every night,” Letang said. “When you have two centers with that skill level, Sid and Geno, trust me, the first thing I want to do is give it to them and they can do their thing. I’m trying to do the favor all the time. It’s not something I’m going to look to do more. It’s what I do.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.