January 1 will mark a year since the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Winter Classic – a highly anticipated event that ended badly for the club as its captain, Sidney Crosby, sustained the first of two hits to the head that went on to sideline him for all but a handful of games in 2011.
Since Crosby exited the lineup again on December 5, however – after experiencing a reoccurrence of concussion symptoms in the eight games he played – the Penguins’ other superstar center has taken the team under his wing. With 18 points (6G, 12A) in the last eight games, Evgeni Malkin has put himself into the thick of the scoring race, with his 42 points just two behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux. He’s scoring at a pace of 1.45 points per game, besting the 1.38 clip that won him an Art Ross Trophy in 2008-09.
And Malkin’s first-line wingers are contributing to the production. James Neal (7G, 3A) and Chris Kunitz (3G, 7A) each have 10 points in the past eight games. Kunitz has points in five consecutive contests, while Neal shares an eight-game point streak with Malkin and, with 21 goals on the year, is just one behind the league’s goal-scoring leader, Steven Stamkos, and his own total for the entirety of last season. All together, the line has accounted for 38 points in the past eight games, leading the Penguins to a four-game winning streak that has them just two points behind the New York Rangers’ Atlantic Division- and Eastern Conference-leading pace.
“The thing that Chris Kunitz brings to our team, in playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, is he creates a lot of havoc with his speed and his physicality going to the net. It creates a lot of space,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “James Neal has fit in with his speed; he creates a lot of turnovers, he hunts pucks down, but he’s also a smart player in complementing good players. He goes to the net, he’s in around the net and, when 71 [Malkin] is playing like that, sometimes if you do too much, you get in the way. Both those guys are doing a good job of being at the net, being in spots, complementing the puck time and the puck protection and the plays that Geno is making.”
The trio’s ability to get through the neutral zone with speed has also been a big part of creating opportunities, Bylsma said. “They’ve been great executing with the puck, manning the puck, putting pucks into areas where we can see the speed of all three players.”
For Malkin, the line’s success comes from familiarity and the ability to anticipate.
“We work in practice every day; we talk a lot and we work and we know how to play together,” he said. “We’ve played together [a lot] so we know what to do. They know where I skate, where they’ve got to skate and, of course, that helps.”
For Neal, it’s about familiarity and anticipation, too – that of playing with a winger in Kunitz whose style is a lot like his own.
“We both like to come with speed and push the d-man back,” Neal said. “It’s nice to be able to play with a guy like that. He’s so underrated, so skilled and so physical. He does a lot of the dirty work, gives us chances to get open and put the puck in the net. And he does the same, too; he’s got a great shot.”
Past the top line’s success, however, Neal said the Penguins’ overall success in the first half of the season has come from every player on the 20-man roster being on the same page, especially when injuries have, at times, decimated the lineup.
“I can’t say enough about those two guys, but it’s such a team effort, all the way through. Ever since I got here [last February], with the injuries, somebody steps up. With our system, the way we play the game, Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury], keep on going down the line – we give ourselves a chance to win every night. It’s fun to be a part of.”