TORONTO – Midway through the third period, Evgeni Malkin quietly moved to a familiar spot: near the hash-marks, stick raised high in the air, ready to take a pass on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ deadly power play. As teammate Phil Kessel shoved Maple Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick out of the way, Malkin had a wide open net and buried his 12th goal of the season.
It would go on to be Pittsburgh’s only goal of the evening as the Leafs, now 23rd in league standings, toppled the second-ranked Pens 2-1 in overtime.
“I don’t think we played as well as a team,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “And we’re disappointed. We’re capable of playing better as a group overall. So it’s hard to evaluate where people are at when we didn’t play the type of game we have to play in order to have success.”
There was little talk about Malkin before the game, as a visit from Sidney Crosby in Toronto is front-page news. And with the focus on the collective defensive miscues of the team in the loss, there was little talk about—or from—Malkin as well.
So much of the chatter surrounding the Penguins and their white-hot start to the season has been the newfound goal-scoring touch from a normally play-making Crosby, who leads the league with 21 goals in just 26 games. But with 34 points in 31 games, perhaps the hockey world as a whole is missing out on Malkin having one of his best seasons in years. His 13 goals and 21 assists finds a perfect, symmetrical balance with Crosby’s 21 goals and 13 assists.
Once considered one of the best players in the game since being drafted by Pittsburgh at no. 2 in 2004, several seasons marred injuries have allowed others players to creep into the conversation with Malkin. Perhaps his most telling stat so far in 2016-17? He’s on pace for over 86 points while averaging just 18:38 of ice time, the lowest of his career.
So, out of sight, out of mind? Likely not for long. If Malkin can stay healthy and on his point-per-game pace, he could have his highest single-season point total since his Hart and Art Ross Trophy-winning season of 2011-12, when the debate about Malkin’s place in the NHL’s elite was null and void.
Against Toronto, Malkin lined up with former Leafs forward Phil Kessel as he has most of the season and produced a host of scoring chances. It’s on the power play where Malkin truly shines: he’s tied with Kessel for first on the team and fourth in the league with 12 points with the man advantage. Despite the loss, Malkin finished with a 54.17 Corsi For % (All situations) good enough for second on the Penguins. (Via Corsica.hockey)
The storylines may revolve around Crosby’s goal-scoring but Malkin’s uptick in production will only go unnoticed for so long. He’s not the talker that other members of the team are, so don’t expect at-length self-reflection from him anytime soon.
Nevertheless, things are clicking for Malkin in his first full season as a 30-year old. There’s good research to suggest that scorers begin to decline once they hit 30 but so far, Malkin is bucking that trend.
After going 7-0 to start December, the Penguins have now lost two in a row and head into a tough stretch of three games in four nights starting Tuesday. In those four games they’ll face up against the New York Rangers and the Columbus Blue Jackets, two Metropolitan division rivals and two of the best teams on the season.
Even though it’s not talked about as much, Pittsburgh will need Malkin more than ever to maintain its slim lead in the division. The Penguins are equal with the Rangers with 45 points, but maintain a game in hand.
“Every game is hard. It’s a good league,” said Sullivan. “There’s a fine line between winning and losing, regardless of who your opponent is. And if you don’t come with the necessary commitment and the focus and the discipline and that type of mindset, you run the risk of getting beat, regardless of who your opponent is. I know we’ve got a capable group and when we play the game the right way we can play with anybody in the league.”