Pens Need More from Malkin More Than Anything

Given what he’s capable of, and what we’ve too often seen instead, Evgeni Malkin has been the Pens’ most under-achieving player.

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He hasn’t scored at even strength consistently all season, he’s been highly penalized, he’s as likely to be defensively indifferent as he is brilliant, and he’s perhaps the biggest offender on a power-play unit that has habitual issues hemorrhaging short-handed goals.

And yet when he isn’t in the lineup, Evgeni Malkin is desperately missed by the Penguins.

Wednesday night was an exception.

Connor McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby needs no supporting cast. It’s a show that can and must go on no matter who else is or isn’t available. And it’s one in which McDavid and his Edmonton Oilers have traditionally been outlasted, even when the Pens are at something less than 100 percent.

Wednesday night’s 3-1 victory by the Pens ran Crosby’s head-to-head record against McDavid to 6-0-0 (this was the first of the six decided by more than one goal due to an empty-netter with one minute left).

Close but no cigar again, Edmonton.

So the one-game suspension Malkin served for losing his mind again on Monday night in Philadelphia turned out to be more of a minor annoyance than a devastating blow.

But the act responsible for Malkin’s Department of Player Safety-mandated night off –– recklessly swinging his stick at the head of Flyers forward Michael Raffl –– was all too representative of the head-scratching season Malkin is enduring.

His 56 points through 51 games represent better than a point-a-game pace (1.10). But the figure dipped to 0.90 from Malkin’s 23rd game on Nov. 27 through the most recent appearance in Philadelphia (the last 29 times Malkin has taken the ice). And only eight of his first 14 goals were scored when the Penguins weren’t on a power play.

Derick Brassard, generally regarded as awful this season, had nine even-strength goals in 40 games before he was traded to Florida. ​

Malkin’s 63 penalty minutes through 51 games were the most among Penguins, and his plus/minus rating of minus 17 was the worst on the team (it had been minus 20 following a 6-3 loss on Jan. 28 against New Jersey).

There are other concerns.

Defenseman Olli Maatta missed the Oilers game (upper-body) and is on the injured-reserve list. Maatta isn’t great, but Chad Ruhwedel on the blueline instead of Maatta isn’t a trade the Pens would prefer to make.

Winger Patric Hornqvist suited up against Edmonton but remained MIA (zero goals, zero assists and zero points in 10 games since returning from a concussion).

Head coach Mike Sullivan, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes due to apparent desperation, continues throwing lineups and combinations at the wall in the hope that something will stick.

Goalie Matt Murray was brilliant in Philly, and his glove save of a McDavid penalty shot on Wednesday night brought the crowd to its feet. But when the paying customers haven’t been chanting his name (“Mur-ray, Mur-ray, Mur-ray”), they’ve been bemoaning unavailability or inconsistency.

And the 0-for-1 performance with the man-advantage against Edmonton made it one power-play goal in 19 tries and two short-handed goals against for the Pens since the all-star break.​

Malkin can’t fix all of that by himself when he comes back, but he can be a lot better than he’s been.

The assault on Raffl was glaring because of when it occurred as much as anything.

Just under five minutes remained in a game the Penguins were leading, 3-0.

The only way the Flyers were going to have a chance to get back in it was if they were somehow gifted a five-minute power play.​

Malkin providing it was as indefensible as it was unacceptable.

That can’t happen even when provoked.

Given what he’s capable of, and what we’ve too often seen instead, Malkin has been the Pens’ most under-achieving player.

Until he’s one of their best players again, their status as a legitimate contender is in question.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section