PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Evgeni Malkin almost looked as if he was trying to catch up from a seven-month injury layoff in 60 minutes.
Skating with a purpose and playing with a flair that was missing during most of an injury-halted 2010-11 season, Malkin took over the Pittsburgh Penguins’ pre-season game against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday the way that only an elite, motivated player can.
In his first game since tearing two knee ligaments against Buffalo on Feb. 4, Malkin scored a goal, set up another and was dazzling at both ends of the ice as Pittsburgh won 3-2. And it wasn’t just that Malkin produced points, it was how he generated them.
Malkin, the fastest skater on the ice, fended off defenceman Garnet Exelby with one arm before switching from his backhand to his forehand to score against goalie Jimmy Howard. Before that, he made a difficult pass through traffic to set up a Chris Kunitz goal.
While it was only a pre-season game that was largely forgotten as soon as it ended, it was quite an exhibition—one that reminded the rest of the NHL of what the world-class Malkin can do when he is healthy and focused.
“He was at a dominant level,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, invoking a word that is rarely used to describe a pre-season performance. “His skating looked good. He was strong and powerful on the puck. To get your fans out of their seats in an exhibition game three or four times by playing the right way, driving to the net, good with the puck, hunting down the puck, it was a pretty good first game back from an injury.”
Pretty good? Penguins coach Marc-Andre Fleury used some colourful language to describe his teammate’s play, and then said: “He was awesome.”
With Penguins captain Sidney Crosby still not cleared for contact as he recovers from a concussion that has sidelined the NHL’s elite player since Jan. 5, the Penguins could use a lot of awesome from a centre capable of producing exactly that.
“He is an absolute thrill to play with,” said veteran forward Steve Sullivan, Malkin’s linemate during camp. “I just have to make sure I don’t get mesmerized out there by what’s going on.”
So far, Malkin—the former NHL scoring champion and Conn Smythe winner—almost appears to be saying, “Sid can take all the time he wants in getting back. I’ll take care of everything until he returns.”
With Crosby’s closely scrutinized comeback taking place in the same training camp, it’s sometimes overlooked that Pittsburgh also was without Malkin for the final two and a half months of the regular season and the playoffs.
The Penguins relied upon their depth and Fleury’s steadiness to produce a 106-point season in 2010-11 that was the second best in their history, but the absence of the two stars hurt them badly as they lost a seven-game playoff series to Tampa Bay they once led 3-1.
After working longer and harder than he ever has in Russia during an off-season made all that much longer by his recovery from right knee surgery and the Penguins’ early exit from the post-season, Malkin has returned to Pittsburgh with a visible passion and purpose.
“I had a great summer and worked hard,” he said. “My knee is not sore—nothing bad. I’m still going to play my same game. Nothing’s changed.”
The Penguins must be hoping that he still has the same game he flashed repeatedly in 2007-08 (106 points) and 2008-09 (a league-high 113 points, plus 36 more in the playoffs as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup).
“I think he watched hockey games and said, `If I can get in there, we could be a really good team,”‘ Bylsma said. “That was his motivation and I think it’s been his motivation this summer. He’s been focused and attentive in terms of getting ready and rehabbing.”
For a reason, too. The 25-year-old Malkin is trying to rebound not just from the first serious injury of his career, but from a second successive disappointing season offensively.
Perhaps a 77-point season in 2009-10 that followed his twin 100-pooint seasons can be blamed on the fatigue of coming off two consecutive runs to the Stanley Cup final and a right shoulder injury.
But the dynamic qualities of his game that once put him on an above-all-others level with Crosby and Alex Ovechkin also were missing much of last season, when he slumped to 15 goals and 37 points in 43 games. It was the first time during an NHL career that began in 2006-07 that Malkin averaged below a point per game.
For comparison’s sake, Malkin had only one fewer point during a 21-game stretch in the 2007-08 season when, while carrying the Penguins at a Mario Lemieux-like pace as Crosby recovered from a high ankle sprain, he had 14 goals and 22 assists.
“I hope this is a better season,” Malkin said. “I had a great summer. I’m not going to change my game, but maybe have more concentration (this season).”
Nobody needs to tell Bylsma what having a driven Malkin would mean to a franchise that is coming off first- and second-round playoff eliminations following its two Stanley Cup runs.
“With him in our lineup, the dynamic changes dramatically for matchups, defensive pairings, power play,” Bylsma said. “We’re just a more dangerous team.”
The Penguins probably are hopeful that a sign held up by a fan Wednesday proves prescient as the NHL season approaches: “We’re letting the Geno out of the bottle.”