It's the best time of year!
Yes, it’s a blow to the Penguins lineup that Evgeni Malkin is done for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. Yes, his absence puts a dent in their hopes of re-capturing Lord Stanley come springtime. But is it time to hit the panic button in the Steel City? Not at this moment.
Malkin is an elite talent in this league – and when he puts that talent on display, he is one of the best and hardest players to play against (his Conn Smythe trophy shows that). However, we haven’t seen that side of Malkin since the Penguins won the Cup in 2009.
The 24-year-old Russian had a tough year last year, going through inconsistent stretches and battling injuries. This year has been much of the same, with it being more of the former before his season-ending injury on Friday; 15 goals and 37 points in 43 games just isn’t the Malkin we expect to see.
When Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion, a lot of the weight was placed on Malkin’s shoulders to carry the team. In seven subsequent games, ‘Geno didn’t score once and collected just three points. Remember when he carried the Pens three years ago when Crosby missed a lot of time with a high-ankle sprain? That was the year he scored 47 goals, racked up 106 points and should have won the Hart.
In short, Malkin hasn’t performed to the level he’s capable of… and it’s been going on for a while now.
In this time of adversity, the thing that has kept Pittsburgh’s head above water is the defense. Their penalty kill is statistically the best in the league and the revamped blueline has stepped up ever since Crosby went down. Marc-Andre Fleury has also been clutch in net in the last month or so.
If the back end starts suffering injuries, that’s when the panic button may be necessary. But if the secondary scoring (now primary) keeps chipping in, they’ll survive and keep pace in the Eastern Conference.
Where they will miss Malkin the most is in the playoffs. He makes the Pens strong down the middle (which is needed in the spring), and he has 73 points in 62 career playoff games. The conference is top-heavy, and teams like Washington, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay have the firepower to match a ‘Geno-less Pittsburgh.
Whether it’s now or later this month, you have to think GM Ray Shero will make a trade to add some scoring. Obviously you can’t simply replace what Malkin brings to the table, but they’ll have cap space flexibility come Feb. 28 to add a forward that could help soften the blow. Furthermore, Shero’s always active at the trade deadline, acquiring Marian Hossa, Bill Guerin and Alexei Ponikarovsky in recent years.
Yes, losing Malkin is a big blow to Dan Bylsma’s club. Yes, Crosby needs to return to the lineup sooner rather later (not much optimism there). However, the Pens, winners of eight of nine, can play the right hockey to keep accumulating points. In fact, they are still challenging the Flyers for the division without any contributions to speak of from their two best players in the last month.
The sky is not falling in Pittsburgh – not yet, at least.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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