Malkin struggling to fill Crosby’s void

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Evgeni Malkin feels the weight of the Penguins' world on his shoulders as he tries to pick up the slack left by Sidney Crosby's absence. (Associated Press)

PITTSBURGH – Had this been an episode of “24/7,” the HBO cameras might have caught center Max Talbot(notes) silently eating a postgame meal, coach Dan Bylsma angrily rattling the table hockey game as he walked through the players’ lounge, the equipment staff quietly carting a batch of black sweaters into the empty dressing room.

And long after all of that, maybe an hour after the final horn, the cameras might have caught center Evgeni Malkin(notes) emerging from the training room – iced down, rubbed down and still feeling down.

“Of course,” Malkin says in his Russian accent, “not feel great.”

There are losses, and then there are losses like the one the Pittsburgh Penguins suffered Monday night, when the best player on the ice buzzed around but couldn’t buy a goal, when a 2-0 victory evaporated into a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins with less than 3½ minutes left.

The Penguins have played three games without captain Sidney Crosby(notes), the NHL’s scoring leader and the favorite for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, who is supposed to be out about a week with a concussion. They have lost all three (one in a shootout).

“We miss him a lot,” defenseman Kris Letang(notes) said. “He’s the best player in the league. Obviously you want him back in your lineup. But it’s not a reason for us to blow a 2-0 lead.”

No, loose defense, poor puck management and a couple of penalties were to blame for that. The fans had just started chanting the name of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) when Bruins captain Zdeno Chara(notes) scored on a power play with 3:23 to go. Brad Marchand(notes) struck 12 seconds later. Then Mark Recchi(notes), the former Penguin, batted a puck out of midair on a power play with 49.2 seconds left. Finally, Gregory Campbell(notes) added an empty netter with 7.8 seconds to go.

But the fact remains that the Penguins have scored only three goals in three games since Crosby left the lineup, and even though the HBO crew has packed up and left Pittsburgh, the spotlight has shifted to Malkin and his struggles.

When the Penguins took the ice before each period Monday, Malkin was the last in line. A camera followed him, projecting a dramatic image of No. 71 onto the HD scoreboard screens at Consol Energy Center.

In 2008-09, he led the NHL in scoring during the regular season with 113 points, then won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. He was the runner-up for the Hart for the second straight season.

But last season, a shoulder injury limited him to career lows in games (67), goals (28), assists (49) and points (77), and this season, he has battled a knee injury and been producing at an even lower rate. He has missed five games and has 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points. If he plays 77 games and continues at this pace, he will finish with 29 goals and 39 assists for 68 points.

Sometimes Malkin still shows what he can do. After missing four games in early December, he put up five goals and three assists in a three-game stretch. But since then, he has managed only two goals and three assists in 10 games. He said his knee is still “a little bit sore,” but improving and close to 100 percent.

After Monday’s morning skate, Bylsma was asked why Malkin has not been as consistently dominant as he has been in the past.

There was a long pause.

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” Bylsma said.

The Penguins keep their own internal statistics, tracking how their players create scoring chances and where they go on the ice. By those measures, Bylsma said, Malkin has been playing hard and well – as well as anyone in the league.

“He consistently leads our team in that category, right up there with Sidney’s numbers in those categories,” Bylsma said, “but has not gotten the finished result.”

And Monday night, that dynamic was on display. Bylsma put Malkin between Crosby’s usual wingers – Chris Kunitz(notes) and Pascal Dupuis(notes) – hoping to generate some offense. Malkin flew all over the ice. He went to the net. Nothing.

During one power play in the second period, Malkin fired a drive from the top of the right circle; it whistled wide. He fired from the right faceoff dot; it was deflected wide. He took another attempt in close; wide again.

Later in the period, he picked up an assist when Letang scored from the point on a power play, giving the Penguins their 2-0 lead. But during another power play toward the end of the second, Malkin’s frustration rose to another level. He stickhandled through two – no, three – Bruins, only to send yet another shot wide.

When the horn sounded, Malkin headed straight down the tunnel, the first Penguin off the bench. Assistant coach Tony Granato gave him a pat on the butt. For a long time, the coaches have been trying to teach Malkin not to press, that if you stay focused on the process instead of the results, the results will come. They’re still trying.

“Geno’s an emotional player, and sometimes coming off injuries or not being able to practice does affect his mindset going into the game,” Bylsma said. “That’s something he’s working on and trying to get better at.”

Though the Penguins are 2-4-2 in their last eight games, there is no reason to overreact. They went 2-5-1 in an eight-game stretch earlier this season – the last game of which was a 7-4 loss to the Bruins in which they blew a two-goal third-period lead at home. They followed that with a 14-0-1 run.

If the Penguins can ever get Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal(notes) healthy and humming at the same time, they’ll be even more potent than they have been already, and they have been at or near the top of the NHL standings for weeks. The Big Three have played only two games together this season. Staal, who was slated to center the second line with Malkin on the right wing, missed the first 39 games with injuries.

But for now, Crosby is still out, Staal is still getting up to speed and Malkin is still struggling to produce like never before. There is no good answer for you.

“I hope Sid coming soon,” Malkin said. “But if not, we just play hard every game.”