It’s been an up and down season for the Penguins.
After a perfectly average, 2-1-2 start, Pittsburgh headed to Canada and caught fire, starting with an impressively focused, 3-0 win over the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs.
They then got into an old-fashioned track meet with a 6-5 overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers, delivered strong performances on both sides of the puck with a 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames and 5-0 shutout of the Vancouver Canucks, and came home with a 4-0 sweep of the road trip.
“I think we just paid attention to detail,” forward Carl Hagelin said. “I think every guy looked themselves in the mirror and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to win my battle.’ And, when 20 guys are doing that out there, it gets a lot better. I [also] think a lot of our goals started in our own end, or by someone forechecking or backchecking well.”
Since then, though? Back to up and down, with mostly strong efforts against the New York Islanders but costly lapses that resulted in back-to-back losses – 6-3 Tuesday at home and 3-2 Thursday in a shootout at Brooklyn.
“Every team’s trying to play quick, and I think in the games we’ve struggled, it’s probably been because teams have forced us to make mistakes, and in some cases we’ve probably made mistakes that weren’t necessarily forced, too,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “It’s all about how you play the game and execute.”
Perhaps meeting the talent-packed Maple Leafs again on Saturday night at home will spark the Penguins, as it did at the start of the Canada trip two weeks ago.
“I guess maybe we might think that, if we don’t do the right things, they might embarrass us,” forward Bryan Rust said. “Maybe that is something that might creep into somebody’s head.”
One thing that has been nothing but consistent all season, however, is Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins’ No. 2 center was the NHL’s No. 2 star of the month for October. Through Friday, he was also No. 2 in the league in scoring, with 20 points in the first 11 games.
Malkin had points in nine of 10 games in October, including six multi-point efforts. Over his last six games, he has six goals and 11 points.
“He’s definitely playing at a high level, but I think we get spoiled with seeing that fairly often,” Crosby said. “I think points are kind of a product of that, but if he had three or four less points, it wouldn’t make any difference. I think he’s always playing at that high level.”
While head coach Mike Sullivan has tinkered with every other forward line throughout the season, Malkin’s line with Hagelin and Phil Kessel has remained intact. Why mess with results?
“He’s playing an inspired game right now,” Sullivan said. “He’s bringing lots of energy; his determination on the puck. I think his offensive game speaks for itself, but the coaches have been really impressed with his willingness to compete away from the puck and play in our end zone.”
That’s been a direct result of Malkin listening to the Penguins coaching staff and making a concerted effort to round out his game.
“We’ve been on him sometimes,” Sullivan said. “He’s a guy that likes to play in constant motion. Sometimes he’s got to cut his skating down a bit and help us defensively and recognizing those situations. So he’s really making a concerted effort to try to play the game the right way and, offensively, he’s been a dominant player for us.”
Kessel is also off to a big start on Malkin’s wing, with 16 points in 11 games. Hagelin, playing his 500th game Saturday, doesn’t bring the same kind of flash on the scoreboard, but adds the speed and battle level that facilitates open ice for his linemates.
So it’s not hard to believe Malkin’s sincerity when he’s quick to deflect credit for his quick start.
“It’s not me; it’s the whole line, it’s whole team,” Malkin said.
He also credits a good summer, working hard with a conditioning coach and getting extra rest after the Penguins’ early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I feel good, fresh, my legs moving. Just try to stay at the same level. I play with great guys, great players. I just do my job; try to do my best.”
The Maple Leafs also tend to bring out the best in Malkin, and chances are a Saturday night game under the Hockey Night in Canada spotlight won’t hurt. Malkin has a seven-game point streak with 11 points (5G, 6A) against the Leafs and, with 62 career points (20G, 42A), he’s been more successful against them than any other non-division opponent.
The Leafs are missing their biggest offensive weapon in Auston Matthews, but they have plenty more, from the John Tavares line through Morgan Rielly, who’s racked up 16 points from the blueline.
“We’re just focusing on our game,” said defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. “Obviously they’ve got plenty of firepower on that team and guys you’ve got to be aware of. But, for the most part, I think we’re just focusing on what we have to do that’s brought us success. Like on the road trip – playing as a five-man group, playing tight and giving each other offensive support and making sure that, when they do get on the rush, we have guys back to shut them down.”