Which Evgeni Malkin will Return to the Penguins?

After a bad season last season, the Russian superstar vowed to be better this season. But the Penguins have been a better team in the early going, even with Malkin unavailable due to injury. Once he returns, will he get with the program or rock the boat?

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It’s gone so well for the Penguins of late that even the Flyers, traditionally a combative and contentious rival, went down with a whimper rather than a fight.

It’s gone so well for the Pens of late that even in the midst of a recent three-game losing streak head coach Mike Sullivan, who normally has a short fuse for losing, had nothing but praise for and appreciation of the way his team was playing.

And it’s gone so well for the Penguins of late that the lineup is becoming more recognizable again as key components have returned from injury.

They’re still waiting on one more of those.

Wonder how it’s going to go when Evgeni Malkin returns?

Malkin’s played just two games this season, not enough to determine if he’s as committed to recapturing his former magic as he insisted he was in the preseason.

It’s anticipated he’ll be back in uniform on Saturday afternoon against Edmonton.

Forgive the Penguins if, while eagerly awaiting Malkin’s return, they’re also a little anxious about it.

If they aren’t, they ought to be.

Malkin had 72 points in 68 games last season, but he was also minus 25 and led the Penguins in penalty minutes with 89 (defenseman Marcus Pettersson was second with 49).

Malkin averaged just over a point a game yet by his own admission had a bad season.

“Last year, I’m not happy for sure,” Malkin acknowledged in training camp. “I want back my highest level.”

It’s admirable to aspire to such heights, but at 33 Malkin’s highest level may no longer be attainable.

Yet for the Malkin and the Penguins, getting what was once his best is no longer necessary.

What Malkin needs to do first and foremost is to get with the program, to fit in with the discipline, structure and attention to detail the Pens have put on display with regularity this season despite a slew of injuries.

They’ve looked in the early stages like a team that’s finally ready to learn from the error of its high-risk ways, from the flaws in approach and decision-making that got them swept out of the first round of last season’s playoffs.

They’ve looked locked in to the extent that even Kris Letang has been responsible as well as spectacular.

“We showed that’s the recipe for our team,” Letang observed in mid-October. “I think every guy that comes back from injury is going to get in line and play the same way.

“We’re trying to establish an identity for our team.”

It’s an identity that doesn’t include defensive indifference, extended shifts, taking reckless chances that lead to turnovers and odd-man rushes into the Penguins’ end, repeatedly taking foolish penalties, showing little or no remorse for the allowing an alarming number of short-handed goals, and a periodic refusal to shoot the puck.

Malkin had his hand in all of the above a season ago.

No wonder he wasn’t happy, for sure.

His first responsibility upon returning will be to play the same game everyone else is playing, to not become an East-West player on a North-South team.

If he does the little things by the numbers, the rest should take care of itself.

But the Same Old Malkin is exactly what the Penguins don’t need right now.

The game they played on Tuesday night against Philadelphia without him, the one they’ve been playing far more often than not in the early going this season, is ripe with promise and potential.

It’s what Sullivan has been longing for since last season ended.

Malkin’s challenge is to become a part of and a contributor to that identity.

He need not be a whole lot more, but the Penguins can’t afford him to be anything less.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section