There’s no doubt that Max Talbot can come through with the clutch play.
As captain of the Hull/Gatineau Olympiques in the QMJHL, he led his club to two consecutive championships, earning playoff MVP and leading the postseason in scoring both times. In 2009, he scored the only two goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final, earning the team a 2-1 win over Detroit and the franchise a third Stanley Cup.
It’s been tough sledding for Talbot since then, however. He missed the start of last season after shoulder surgery and was largely ineffective upon his return, playing less physically and registering just seven points in 45 games. In typical Talbot fashion, though, he found a way to elevate his game when the stakes were high, scoring about a point every other game during the Penguins’ two-round playoff run.
The 2010-11 season, then, stood as an important one for the likeable forward, in no small part because he’s set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of it. He needed to bounce back, reestablish himself as an important part of Pittsburgh’s secondary scoring, reassert the grit and feistiness that are integral to his game.
Talbot has done that, for the most part, particularly in his important role on the league’s best penalty-kill. The offense, though, has been harder to come by. Heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the New York Islanders, he was on the verge of two career milestones – 50 goals and 100 points. Problem was, he had been stuck at 49 goals for the past 25 games, 99 points for the past 16.
Still, Talbot believed he would break through the slump soon. The last few games had presented opportunities that weren’t coming before, and his teammates had also noticed.
“The guys were giving me a hard time, but … always supporting me,” Talbot said. “They’ve been telling me the last couple games, ‘You’re going to get it tonight, Max; I’ve got a good feeling.’ I think three guys told me that tonight. It’s nice, mentally, to have the support of the guys out there.”
Wednesday presented some of his biggest opportunities – and near misses – so far. One shot clanked off both posts, coming so close to crossing the line that the goal horn sounded. He couldn’t finish on another, shorthanded attempt. Finally, with the score 2-0 and the clock ticking down, Talbot got a shot at the empty net – and missed.
But the Penguins kept him out for another chance. This time, with 41 seconds remaining, Talbot connected, and the Pittsburgh bench erupted.
“After I scored it, it was like we won the Cup or something,” he said. “Everybody was really happy.”
For Talbot, a sparkplug forward who has forged his place in the NHL with hard-nosed, two-way play and an upbeat dressing-room presence, personal statistics aren’t the most important part of his game. He knows he’s relied upon to contribute some offensive, but said he tried to work his way out of his slump by doing other things right.
“You stay with it; you try to do the right things, even though it’s not going in or you’re not getting points,” he said. “You try to win draws, play well defensively, kill penalties. I knew at one point it was going to go in, and tonight was the night. It feels great.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma has seen Talbot ratchet up his effort over the past few games, and has rewarded him with increased ice time.
“I think Max has been playing a pretty significant role and doing some good things for us,” Bylsma said. “He’s had some good opportunities in the last few games to get goals, [hit] a couple posts tonight, and I think the biggest roar from our bench came when Max got that goal.”
Whether Talbot’s long-term future is in Pittsburgh remains to be seen. In Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and rookie Mark Letestu, the Penguins have four centers signed to multi-year deals. And, although Talbot can also play the wing, Pittsburgh has several AHL prospects that are verging on NHL-ready, at less of a cap hit than Talbot’s million-plus per year.
Wednesday, though, Bylsma was pleased to see Talbot’s hard work rewarded. And he thinks there may be more where that came from.
“A little bit of relief for him, a little bit of a reward for some of the hard work he’s done,” Bylsma said. “It’s the type of goal where, if he keeps playing like he is, he’s going to see a couple more come right behind it.”
Talbot thinks so, too.
“My game has never been about goals and assists, but it’s always nice to contribute offensively,” he said, then flashed a grin. “And now, the gate’s open.”