For most Stanley Cup champion-winning teams, there always comes a reckoning with Father Time, and the competitive cycle. But there always are outliers, and one of them – the battered-but-buoyant Pittsburgh Penguins – is about to get even better with the return of superstar forward Evgeni Malkin.
To be where the Penguins are right now – fourth in the Metropolitan Division, two standings points behind the third-place Washington Capitals and three points behind the second-place New York Rangers, with two games in hand on both the Caps and Rangers – is a credit to the culture and talent that still powers the Pens, even as Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby are in the back nine of their Hall-of-Fame careers. And they’ve shown they can win without a fully healthy roster. Pittsburgh played without Crosby for the first 12 games of the season, and Malkin just returned for his first regular-season game of the year.
The injury bug has bitten the Penguins hard: only two of their players, forward Evan Rodriguez and defenseman John Marino, have appeared in all of Pittsburgh’s 35 games. Forward Bryan Rust has only played 15 games; leading scorer Jake Guentzel has missed six games; defenseman Kris Letang has missed four games. However, as all these talents were sidelined, all the Pens did was turn into a monster opponent for any NHL team.
Once Crosby returned to action, it took Pittsburgh a few games to figure things out, and when they did, the winning has almost never stopped. After a three-game losing streak in mid-November dropped their record to 5-6-4, the Penguins have marauded their way to a 16-3-1 run and a 21-9-5 record overall. And after their 10-game win streak ended with a 3-2 road loss to Dallas Jan. 8, the Pens’ schedule gives them ample opportunity to get Malkin back into the mix on offense and reassemble their lineup with just about all members on board.
This is not to suggest Malkin needs much of a landing strip to get on the same pace as his teammates. In that first game back, Jan. 11 vs. Anaheim, Malkin scored twice – one even-strength goal, and one on the power play – and added an assist to post three points, and was their top player in knocking off the Ducks. And look at Pittsburgh’s opponents in their next 10 games: Los Angeles. San Jose. A struggling Vegas team. After that, they take on the Senators, Blue Jackets, Jets, Coyotes, Seattle, Detroit, and the Kings again. Malkin is likely going to feast on them. And he’s going to make the NHL’s 10th-best offense (averaging 3.29 goals-for per game) that much more dangerous.
We’re sticking with the opinion the Penguins’ biggest area of concern is their backup goaltending, with current No. 2 Casey DeSmith not exactly thriving. Does Pens GM Ron Hextall really want to take the chance starting goalie Tristan Jarry – who, in his defence, has posted excellent individual numbers (a 1.91 goals-against average. .932 save percentage, and an 18-6-4 record) this year – doesn’t melt down in the playoffs for the second straight post-season? Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan clearly didn’t believe in DeSmith as a viable second option last year, leaving Jarry in for the entire mess of a playoff. Has that changed? Goalies will be available at the trade deadline, and that position is what Hextall needs to address.
Hextall needn’t worry about his team’s offense, though. With Malkin back and the overall physical state of the team in a much better place, Pittsburgh will be frightening to those Metro Division teams. They’re only three points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the top spot in the Metro, and although the Canes have two games in hand, Pittsburgh has been playing just as well as Carolina in their past 10 games.
Adding Malkin to the Pens’ lineup is adding fuel to a fire that’s already shown it can’t be contained. Ultimately, as an opponent, you may have no choice but to flee from it, and hope you don’t get burned.