Evgeni Malkin hasn’t been playing poorly in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. But, regardless of how much he and the Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated play whenever he’s been on the ice, there are those who haven’t been able to see past his lack of offensive production in the Final.
Count Malkin as one of them.
“We play against good defensemen,” Malkin said Sunday. “They play so close and so tight, it’s tough to shoot sometimes. But I need to find ways to shoot.”
Malkin reserved his harshest criticism for the power play, where neither team has seen much time as the officials are largely letting them play. That’s made it all the more important to take advantage of opportunities, which the Penguins didn’t for the first three games.
“Last night [in Game 3], I thought we played casual; we played soft,” he said. “We’re not shooting the puck; we have zero shots on the power play. We need aggressiveness from all five guys.”
Monday night in San Jose, Malkin put his money where his mouth is, setting up the opening goal 7:36 in and scoring the eventual game-winner – into a wide-open net on the power play – early in the second period to lead the Penguins to a 3-1, Game 4 win.
That 3-1 margin also happens to be the Penguins’ lead in the series. And it means that Thursday, for the first time in their history, they’ll return to Pittsburgh with the opportunity to clinch a Stanley Cup on home ice.
“It’s simple; if you want to win, you need to use the power play,” Malkin said. “We didn’t score the first three games, but it worked tonight. It’s easy when you score; feels so much better.”
“I thought he was really good, and not just because he got on the scoresheet,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “Obviously that’s great for him, it’s great for us, but I thought his overall game was really good. He played at both ends of the rink.
“When he plays that way, he’s so hard to defend; it seems like the puck follows him around. I just thought he had one of his strongest games of the playoffs at an important time for us.”
Malkin’s critical goal gave the Penguins a 2-0 cushion they’d need when Melker Karlsson cut their lead in half midway through the third. It came courtesy of a pass from Phil Kessel – who distracted all the Sharks’ penalty killers, including goalie Martin Jones, from noticing that Malkin was parked at the corner of a wide-open net.
“My goal was, Phil gave me an empty net,” Malkin said. “It’s just go to net, stay close and try to play around the net. When I have the puck, I’m trying to shoot. It’s a simple game tonight for me.”
Kessel was also involved in the opening goal, where Malkin saw an opportunity to hit the breaking winger with a pass. Jones stopped Kessel’s initial shot, but defenseman Ian Cole was out front to drive it home.
Kessel leads the Penguins – and anyone other than three of the Sharks, for that matter – with 21 points (10G, 11A) on the postseason. If Pittsburgh claims the Stanley Cup, he’s building a strong case for the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
That might surprise some who think of Kessel from the end of his ill-fitting tenure in Toronto, but it doesn’t surprise the Penguins.
“Phil deserves the credit for his contribution to helping this team win,” Sullivan said. “I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team. We don’t get to where we’re at if Phil doesn’t play the type of hockey that he’s played throughout the course of this playoffs. He has been one terrific player for us.
“He scores big goals; his offense speaks for itself. He’s dangerous on the power play. He’s dangerous off the rush. But I think what his teammates admire and respect – and what his coaching staff certainly does – is his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink. He’s a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he’s one of the more elite players in the league, in our opinion.”
With contributions from elite players like that; role players like Eric Fehr, who scored the insurance goal with 2:02 remaining to stem a desperate, third-period push from the Sharks; and rookie goaltender Matt Murray, who continues to play with an unflappable poise well beyond his just-turned-22 years, the Penguins are on the cusp of turning a special season into a historic one.
As the saying goes, however, you have to win four, and the fourth is the toughest to win.
“They’re a great team so we’re going to have to play our game,” Kessel said. “It’s a close game out there as you guys can tell, and they’re going to come at us hard. We’re going to have to go home and play our best hockey.”
In a series that’s nearly always been within a goal – but never with the Sharks in the lead except for their Game 3 overtime win – San Jose doesn’t have to change much except trying to get on the board first.
“We’ve been chasing the game the whole series by not scoring first,” said Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer. “That takes you out of your four-line rhythm. It affects all parts of your game. We’ve been on the other end of that in the playoffs, where we’ve jumped out to the lead on some teams and made them change their game.
“There’s no quit in our group. We’ve been the best road team in the league. We’re going to show up and try to get this back here for Game 6. Until you win four, this isn’t over.”