It was easy to overlook when the Pittsburgh Penguins were winning Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. But now that the Pens have dropped Game 3, folks are noticing how little they've noticed Evgeni Malkin.
The star center is still looking for his first point in the series, which resumes on Monday night in San Jose (8:00 ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).
"He's such a talented player," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said in defense of Malkin. "He has the ability to be a difference maker on any given shift."
No doubt about that. At his best, Malkin can take over a game with his size, speed and offensive flair. But as the spotlight has warmed, the 29-year-old's hands have gone ice cold. He enters Game 4 without a goal in six straight and has just one to show for his past 15 games.
Slumps are inevitable. Even the best players struggle to light the lamp from time to time. What's concerning about Malkin is how he's failed to make an impact in any appreciable fashion. Take Game 3: He didn't get his first shot on goal in that tightly contested match until midway through the third period. His best chance of the night? A net-front re-direct in overtime that he sailed wide of the target.
Beyond that, he was most obvious when he was getting dumped, repeatedly, by Sharks blueliner Brenden Dillon.
Sullivan credited San Jose's defense for keeping Malkin in check. "When you get this far in the playoffs, the teams you're playing against, they defend hard," he said. "There's not a lot of ice out there. I don't know that anybody has the puck on their stick for any length of time out there. We're trying to encourage him to find that balance in his game of making those plays when the opportunities present themselves, and when they're not, to make the simple play."
Sullivan's only been in Pittsburgh half a season, but he's seen enough to know that Malkin can make his mark on this series.
"I know that there's another level that he has to help us win," he said. 'I know he's going to be a big part of the next few games here. He's an elite player. When he plays the game the right way, he's a threat out there."
Through the first three games though, Malkin has been a threat in abstract only. The Pens need him to be something more.
• Maybe the biggest surprise of the series so far is how special teams have scarcely impacted it. Both teams have been whistled for just seven minors each through the first three games. You'd like to think that's a testament to the quality of play, but it's more a reflection of the Hudson Bay standard being imposed by the officials. At this point, the response to anything short of a folding chair to the back is 'play on.'
Take this non-call from Game 3, for instance:
Hard to imagine any circumstances under which that doesn't merit a trip to the box. But it's par for this series.
To be clear, neither team is getting jobbed. There have been several equally egregious oversights that have let the Penguins off the hook as well. But this isn't simply "letting 'em play." It's gotten to the point where no one, coaches, players or fans, knows what's going to be ruled a foul.
The game's better when the rules are enforced and skill is allowed to carry the day. Both teams would benefit from that approach.
Wes McCauley and Kelly Sutherland are the officials tonight. They also worked Game 2 of the series, which saw just three minors called, all by Sutherland. It's a good bet then that we'll see the same loose standard used tonight.
• Sullivan's Penguins have yet to score on six chances with the extra man in the series, so it's no surprise they spent time on Sunday working on the power play ... even if they don't expect it to get much use.
"Well, I think there is less penalties called. It just seems like that's the trend in the playoffs," he said. "You usually don't get a lot of opportunities. If you have a chance to make it work, that's great.
"I thought the biggest challenge that we had [in Game 3] was on our entries. We only had one power play. We struggled with any sort of clean entries and it limited our zone time."
Sidney Crosby wasn't the only problem, but he was the most obviously guilty party there. He made a couple of bad passes on entry that ended up on San Jose sticks and were sent back into the Pittsburgh zone. Those were momentum killers for a team that wants to hit the zone with speed. He has to be sharper.
• Tomas Hertl is out for Game 4 as he continues to recover from a lower body injury. The Sharks would have loved to have the big winger back in the lineup, but coach Peter DeBoer has options.
Melker Karlsson was promoted to the top line in Game 3, but wasn't an ideal fit. That led to DeBoer experimenting with various linemates for Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, including a late stretch where Logan Couture moved up to form a super line. Together, they set up camp in the offensive zone and dominated possession.
That one-basket approach isn't ideal though, especially up against the superior forward depth of the Penguins.
“It helped us the other night, sure,” DeBoer said of loading up his No. 1 unit. “It would be similar to them moving Crosby, Malkin and Kessel together. You have three great players playing together.
“But in order to do that, that hurts you in other parts of the lineup. You have to be comfortable you can survive doing that with the other parts.”
Given the advantage of last change at home, DeBoer can pick his spots to get that trio out there. It could be his go-to unit for offensive zone face-offs following Pittsburgh icings, especially as the contest wears on.
• The Sharks made a nice adjustment in Game 3 to mitigate a key element of Pittsburgh's attack. The Pens chewed up San Jose's defense with dump-ins in Games 1 and 2, using the speed of their wingers to retrieve the puck and set up deep in the zone. On Saturday, the Sharks won most of those foot races and quickly turned the puck the other way—a key to winning the possession battle. They made better reads, and their positioning along the wall was superior. But they also made a commitment to winning those battles that they lost routinely in Pittsburgh.
It'll be interesting to see if the Pens continue to try those chip-ins tonight, or if they rely more heavily on controlled entries.
• Ben Lovejoy sparked Pittsburgh's offense in Game 3 with a goal and an assist, but he and his partner, Olli Maatta, were lit up in the contest. Lovejoy was on the ice for 33 even-strength shots attempts by the Sharks; Maatta wasn't much better at 32. That's means over 40% of San Jose's attempts that were made when that pair was on the ice. Add in an uncharacteristically sloppy game from Kris Letang and the Pens were maybe lucky to get that game to overtime.
• As the Sharks proved in Game 3, a team doesn't necessarily need to play with a lead to get a win. Still, waiting for overtime to get the go-ahead goal is probably not a sustainable model of success.
San Jose is still looking for its first lead in regulation. To this point of the final, they've either played from behind (69:20) or been tied (125:33). The Pens on the other hand, haven't trailed in any of their past six games.
That's allowed them, for the most part, to dictate the style and pace of those games, forcing the Sharks to try and keep up. Getting the lead, especially at home, might allow San Jose to knock Pittsburgh out of its comfort zone and give the Sharks their best chance to even up the series.