Rookie Malkin floundering under intense playoff light
Posted: Sunday April 15, 2007 10:57PM; Updated: Sunday April 15, 2007 11:07PM
PITTSBURGH -- If Sidney Crosby is the face of the NHL, then Evgeni Malkin is about to be the NHL face that appears on a milk carton.
They were supposed to be two of a kind in the playoffs: the dazzling Crosby and the wondrous lanky center/winger the other Pittsburgh Penguins call "Geno" because it rolls off their tongue the way Crosby usually rolls off a check. Along with precocious rookie Jordan Staal, the trio are the cornerstones of a franchise that returned Sunday night for its first home playoff game in six years, secure in its future in the city that has been blessed by more brilliant offensive players in the past 15 years -- hello, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr -- than any other in North America.
That's cornerstone, not millstone. But through three games of the series -- Ottawa forged a 2-1 series lead with a convincing 4-2 victory in Game 3 -- Malkin has been invisible most of the time, which is no mean feat for a guy who is a legitimate 6-foot-4 and the presumptive rookie of the year. (At least he was No. 1 one my ballot.)
Sure, like Sasquatch, there have been some Malkin sightings -- he set-up Crosby on Pittsburgh's final goal, a nifty give-and-go with a little more than five minutes remaining -- but they generally have come when he's been in the penalty box.
The bad news: He took a pair of silly, soft, stick penalties in Game 3 -- a first-period trip and a hook in the second. The good news: His English clearly is getting better, and probably more colloquial, given the way he whined to the referees after the calls.
As much as the victory belonged to valiant Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who scored a pair of goals and played with an abrasiveness usually associated with the toilet paper in public restrooms, the defeat lay at the hands of Malkin.
Malkin was oatmeal soft on the first Senators goal when Peter Schaefer stripped him of the puck with a check that wouldn't have broken glass, leading seconds later to a rebound go-ahead goal for Mike Comrie. And the hook fewer than four minutes later also eventually wound up in the Penguins' net, this time on an Alfredsson rocket from the left circle on the power play.
Malkin ended up with a third penalty, this time for ostensibly noble reasons with 77 seconds left. When Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips simply rag-dolled Crosby to the ice behind the net, Malkin rushed to his teammate's defense, getting a roughing penalty, along with Phillips, that mercifully ended his night a little early. There are two schools of thought on this: 1) By taking a penalty and taking a Senators player with him, Malkin was opening up more ice for his team four-on-four, thus giving it a marginally better chance for a two-goal miracle; or 2) A player with Malkin's copious offensive skill should be on the ice with the Penguins in desperate need of a quick goal or two.
Certainly Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien was giving Malkin his opportunities -- 21:49 of ice time, more than any forward in the match. As he did in in the third period of Game 2 in Ottawa, he moved Malkin up to Crosby's flank and ultimately was rewarded by Malkin's one singular moment in the three games, the assist on Crosby's third goal of the playoffs. Beyond that, and a pair of second assists in Game 2, Malkin has been a virtual cipher: only four shots and and a minus-one rating, serious underachievement for a player who led NHL rookies with 33 goals and 85 points during the regular season.
"Obviously it's been bad timing for him," Staal said. "It seems like he's been battling the puck. Maybe thinking too much. I can't really explain why not playing well. He's a good player. Don't know if he doesn't want it or something, but it's just a tough time."
"This is a new experience for him," Penguins veteran Mark Recchi posited. "I don't want to make excuses for him, but it's been a long year. There's been a lot of pressure on him, coming over to a new culture. This has all been new. Playoffs are a different hockey game ... Let's hope he keeps growing from this. He's been a quick learner all year."
Somebody find Malkin the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course. If he doesn't resurface in the next two games, summer will seem longer than a Russian novel.