PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin stepped into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ practice rink dressing room, spotted a large group of reporters forming a faceoff circle around his seat and quickly scooted into an adjacent off-limits area without taking any questions.
Malkin is successful on a breakaway again. If only he could do it against the Washington Capitals.
In a playoff series that is all Alex Ovechkin and all Sidney Crosby all the time, Malkin – the NHL’s leading scorer – is mostly invisible. No goals, no breakaways and nowhere near the offense he produced while totaling 113 points during the season.
It’s perhaps the key reason why the Penguins have no victories as they return home for a virtual must-win Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday night, down 2-0 to Washington in a series that is fairly even except for one glaring statistic.
Alex Ovechkin, four goals. Sidney Crosby, four goals. Evgeni Malkin, zero goals.
Ovechkin and Crosby, as good as the NHL’s signature stars are, probably can’t maintain their can-you-top-this pace the rest of the series. If the Penguins are to catch the Capitals – and they’ve done it three times before when down two games – they need Malkin to get back to being Malkin.
Quickly, too, because otherwise the Penguins will trail 3-0 in a series for the first time in 30 years, or since Boston swept them in four games in 1979.
“We can’t expect Geno to score every game, it’s really a collective effort,” Crosby said Tuesday, barely 12 hours since Ovechkin scored the go-ahead goal in Washington’s 4-3 victory in Game 2 on a power play created by a Malkin penalty. “It’s up to us to do our part for sure, but I think he’s working to get chances. The opportunities are there, but it’s the playoffs and it’s tight and there’s going to be times where it’s a little bit difficult.”
Like right now.
Malkin isn’t alone in the failing-to-support-Sid club: Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz have no goals in eight playoff games. Bill Guerin has scored in only one playoff game. Sergei Gonchar has one goal in 18 games, Petr Sykora one goal in 17.
Still, none of those players means to the Penguins what Malkin does.
“When you start to press for it, that’s when it doesn’t come,” Guerin said. “If nobody else scores and Sid has every single goal the rest of the way and we win, that’s good.”
The Penguins’ Game 3 theme is to keep playing at the same intensity level, constantly pressure rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov and – sigh of envy – don’t get too caught up in what Ovechkin is doing.
“We don’t want to abandon our whole game plan just to take away one player because they’ve got too many guys who can hurt you,” Guerin said.
Similarly, coach Bruce Boudreau warned the Capitals that what they’ve done so far won’t be good enough on the road against a talented team that Crosby promised “will be desperate.”
“These guys went to the Stanley Cup finals last year, so the one thing you know is they believe they can win it,” Boudreau said. “The minute we let up is the minute we’re going to be in trouble.”
Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux, who is growing a healthy playoffs beard to match those of his players, knows they can. The Penguins were down 2-0 to Washington in 1992 and 1996 and came back to win each series. They also rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win in 1995.
The one difference is the Penguins possessed the game’s signature star – be it Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr – in each series.
This time, it’s Washington who apparently has that player. Ovechkin scored three times in Game 2 on shots so hard and so precise they probably resembled Nolan Ryan fastballs to Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“When you’re playing, you’re playing well, and he’s playing well right now and we’re going to have to figure it out,” Guerin said.
While the Penguins will rely on desperation, the Capitals might draw motivation from Kunitz’s late-game hit on Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov that Boudreau called “pretty vicious.” Ovechkin called it worse than that.
“Yeah, I think it’s dirty … it’s cheap shot and it’s not good for hockey,” Ovechkin said. “I can’t imagine if he gives him injury. If it’s not going to be called, it’s going to be a terrible decision and I’ll be (mad) about it.”
Just what the Penguins don’t need, an angry Ovechkin.
“We want to move forward,” Ovechkin said. “After the fourth game, there’ll be a little celebration, but right now, nothing.”