Evgeni Malkin exhibits grace, ease and vision on the ice that have many comparing him to another one-time Penguins rookie by the name of Mario Lemieux. Considering the courage and determination Malkin showed in making his way to the U.S. this summer, however, it only made sense that his first goal in a Penguins uniform didn’t come as the result of a pretty individual effort, but instead from grit and perseverance.
In Malkin’s NHL debut, delayed for two weeks by a dislocated shoulder suffered in his lone preseason game, the New Jersey Devils were leading the Penguins 1-0 late in the second period. The 20-year-old Russian skated the puck into the Devils’ zone and dished a pass to Mark Recchi, who took the shot against Martin Brodeur. Brodeur made the stop, but Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney knocked it loose and Malkin, staying with the play in front of the net, jammed it under Brodeur’s pads and past the goal line. The Devils goaltender was visibly upset that the play hadn’t been whistled dead, but the goal light was on, Malkin pumped his fist with excitement, and the standing-room-only crowd of 17,030 erupted.
Although Malkin doesn’t speak much English yet, he was clearly aware of the hype surrounding the game and was relieved to get his first goal out of the way. “When I came out for this game I was very worried, and that first goal is very important,” he said through interpreter George Birman. “In the future, I think it’s going to be easier.”
Unfortunately for the Penguins, that was the only time Brodeur would be beaten. The Penguins fired 38 shots at the Devils’ goaltender, but only Malkin’s went in en route to a 2-1 New Jersey victory. Jay Pandolfo and Jamie Langenbrunner scored for the Devils in Brodeur’s 450th career win, which made him just the third NHL goaltender to reach that milestone.
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby said that although Brodeur played well, the Penguins also failed to test him enough. “A lot of our shots were from the outside,” said Crosby. “He made some good saves, but we have to find ways to put those in. They found ways to get a stick on the puck and get a shot away, and we have to do the same thing.”
The Penguins figure to get plenty of scoring chances in the future from the pairing of Malkin and Crosby. Both are natural centers and will not regularly play together, other than on special teams, but coach Michel Therrien started the two against New Jersey and paired them again several times throughout the game.
“I tried to bring a spark to our team,” Therrien said. “I’m not saying that every game is going to be like that, but there’s going to be times that, if I figure we need to get something going, maybe those guys are going to play together.”
Crosby, who normally centers a line with Colby Armstrong and Nils Ekman, liked what he saw from Malkin. “I think a lot of times he’s able to beat guys with speed or stepping out of the way,” said Crosby. “It’s just smarts and hockey sense and he has it, and it’s just going to improve because he’s going to get used to the way guys play and the way teams play him. He can only get better.”
Although the Devils came out ahead, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury held his own against Brodeur, one of his idols growing up in Quebec. The 21-year-old netminder stopped 32 of 34 shots by New Jersey, and was an important part of the Penguins’ penalty killing unit as they held the Devils scoreless in five power play attempts.
“I think it was a good game for both sides; we had as many shots on net, more than they had, but Marty Brodeur played a great game and was able to keep it to one goal,” Fleury said. “He’s always been one of my favorite goalies, so it’s always a little weird and special to be playing against him, and tonight he showed why he’s one of the best again.”
For the Penguins, it was the first game of the season in which they outshot their opponents. Prior to facing the Devils, Pittsburgh ranked last in the NHL with an average of only 20.5 shots per game. “This is something that we addressed with our team, and we’ll keep going in that direction,” said Therrien.
The team could also take pride in its effort against the Devils, which showed significant improvement over an uninspired 5-1 loss to Carolina four nights earlier.
“It was a good game, the type of game that could have gone both ways,” said Therrien. “Those are the types of games that eventually we’ve got to be able, with more experience, to win. But we’re playing against a team that’s got a lot of experience and is a good hockey team, and I really liked the effort tonight.”
The young Penguins can gain that experience by taking lessons from games like these, said Crosby. “We’ve got to forecheck better; they play a tight game and I think if we skate and get the puck behind their D, that’s more dangerous,” he said. “When we play a team like that, we can’t get caught into playing the way they want to play. Obviously we have to play defense, but I think we have to go more on the attack and create things ourselves. When we do that, we see good results.”
And in the most encouraging development of the night, the Penguins and their fans finally got their first real glimpse of what a special talent they have in Malkin. The rookie reported that he felt no lingering effects of his shoulder injury, and proved it in the third period with a wicked slapshot that shattered a pane of glass behind the net.
“The guy’s just so good, so many skills,” Fleury said of his new teammate. “I think we haven’t seen everything yet, and I’m just looking forward to it.”