PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Dan Byslma isn’t a doctor, even though the Pittsburgh Penguins’ coach sometimes sounds like one while running down his team’s lengthy injured list.
So forgive Bylsma if he can’t say for certain whether star centre Evgeni Malkin is fully recovered from the torn ACL in his right knee that prematurely ended the Russian’s 2010-11 season.
Malkin’s entertainingly broken English doesn’t lend itself to adjectives, anyway. Ask Malkin how he’s feeling and the Russian just smiles and says “good.”
All Bylsma knows is what he sees. And at the moment he sees the 25-year-old all-star playing arguably the best hockey of his career, heady territory considering Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy while helping the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup.
“I don’t know if he’s going to have another couple levels to get to 100 per cent,” Bylsma said. “(If so) in six more months it’s going to be really scary.”
It already is.
Two weeks after Pittsburgh’s season seemed on the brink of unravelling in the midst of a six-game slide, the Penguins have turned things around in the blink of one of Malkin’s slap shots.
Pittsburgh enters the all-star break riding a seven-game winning streak, the franchise’s longest since ripping off 12 straight in November-December 2010.
Yet that run came with the team nearly at full strength, before Sidney Crosby’s odyssey to recover from concussion-like symptoms began following a pair of hits last January, before Malkin’s season ended abruptly with knee issues.
This run has come with Crosby out indefinitely—again—as the symptoms returned in early December. It’s also come without forward Jordan Staal, likely out another month with a knee injury.
It has come mostly on the strength of the top line of Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz, who have been nearly unstoppable in the last two weeks.
The trio has scored 16 of Pittsburgh’s 24 goals during the run, with Malkin’s nine over the span propelling him into the NHL’s points lead.
He’s scoring in a variety of ways. If he’s not rifling slap shots from his favourite spot in the right circle, then he’s weaving through traffic or posting up in front of the net to slam in loose rebound after loose rebound.
“He’s controlling the game so well right now,” Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin said of his countryman. “He knows that without Crosby (their) team is good, but not that good. He’s handling it well.”
So well Malkin’s barely batting an eye at the massive amount of ice time Bylsma is throwing his way. Malkin has played more than 20 minutes in each game during the streak, including topping 25 minutes twice, a remarkably heavy workload for a forward.
Part of it is out of necessity—he’s easily the team’s best player with Crosby sidelined—and part of it is out of luxury.
“There are times when he’s probably gotten a lot of ice and he’s still ready to handle more,” Bylsma said. “He’s demanding the ice time by his play.”
For proof, Bylsma pointed to a pair of hustle plays by Malkin last week that helped preserve the winning streak.
In a 5-4 shootout victory over Montreal last Friday, Malkin went to the ice to block a shot, a rarity for him during a regular-season game. He preserved the tie, then won it by scoring the only goal in the shootout.
He was just as fresh in the third period against Washington on Sunday, picking himself up after getting checked, then chasing down the puck and fending off three Capitals before feeding Neal for the game-tying goal. The Penguins would eventually win in a shootout.
“The way he’s playing right now, it doesn’t look too much like he’s getting overtaxed,” Bylsma said. “There’s not a cheat in the effort in those 25 minutes, and that’s what you see in his game on both ends of the rink.”
It’s the kind of on-ice leadership the Penguins needed following a miserable stretch at the beginning of the month in which a team considered a Stanley Cup contender two months ago looked like a veritable pushover.
Six mostly lifeless losses dropped Pittsburgh to the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, with goals becoming scarce and whispers about Crosby’s silence leading to questions about his commitment.
Crosby joined the team for a three-game swing through Washington and Florida, even donning his skates for the first time in over a month during a couple of light practices.
While his teammates point to the captain’s presence as encouraging, they also know they couldn’t wait around for No. 87 to swoop in and save the day.
Defenceman Brooks Orpik says a well-timed team meeting just before playing at Washington on Jan. 11 served as a turning point.
“I hate using the word soft, but at times we’d become easy to play against,” he said.
With Crosby out of the lineup, the Penguins were so focused on trying to manufacture goals, they forgot about the other parts of the game, namely checking.
“We may not go out and fight every night but teams are going to feel like we forecheck and bounce pretty well,” forward Matt Cooke said. “I think we got away from that.”
Though the Capitals won 1-0 the next night, Orpik noticed a change.
“If you ask (Washington), I think they’d tell you it was one of the harder games they’d played all season,” Orpik said. “When you’re missing (defenceman Kris) Letang, Crosby, Staal, there’s not going to be a lot of goals scored. You’ve got to find other ways to be hard to play against and get better in certain areas.”
Lopsided wins in Florida and Tampa Bay followed, and the Penguins haven’t looked back. Letang is in all-star form since returning last week, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been exceptional.
The optimism inside the dressing room has returned, led by the hottest player on the planet.
“I have great confidence now, you know?” Malkin said. “I just am enjoying the game, you know? And having fun.”