The Penguins are off to a positive start after sweeping Atlantic Division rivals Philadelphia and the New York Rangers on the road over the weekend.
The goaltending contributed by Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun has been first-rate, the puck-possession attack has been dominant at times and the team seems to have gotten much more comfortable defending than it was late last season.
Individually, nothing has jumped off the page like Evgeni Malkin’s full-tilt play in the opening two games of this shortened campaign. Yes, James Neal’s three gorgeous goals have him on track for another huge red-light total, but his Russian linemate has been just as, if not more, impressive.
When projecting which Penguin was most likely to fly out of the chute after the four-month work stoppage, my best guess was Sidney Crosby. My justification was that, by firsthand accounts, he is healthy, strong, and would be more excited than anyone to get back on game ice after two concussion-plagued seasons.
However, being eager to play and being truly prepared are two different things. While Crosby hasn’t looked out-of-sorts by any stretch of description, Malkin has simply been a step quicker and a degree sharper than No. 87 and the rest of his Penguins teammates.
Malkin, who scored a career-high 50 goals in last year’s MVP effort, hasn’t beaten a goaltender yet, but his four assists have been an accurate barometer of his early edge. His setups of Dupuis and Neal (twice) in Sunday’s 6-3 win at New York are examples of plays that don’t get made if the timing or accuracy of the passes are just a fraction off.
Watch Malkin’s three assists from Sunday’s game here:
At NHL speed, centimeters and milliseconds carry immense significance. Malkin has fired only two shots in two games, but Neal’s 14 over that span are at least partially attributable to Evgeni’s presence.
It’s my belief that Malkin is in usual January form in this most unusual season due to his skating in 37 games for his hometown Kontinental Hockey League club during the lockout. No. 71 scored 65 points (23 goals) in a half-season for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in about as effective a prelude to a 48-game NHL schedule as one could imagine.
The KHL isn’t the NHL, but during the lockout it was certainly world-class hockey. No matter how many drills and scrimmages a player participates in, game intensity is just a little bit different. As mentioned above, just a little bit is a big deal at the elite levels of any activity, with hockey being no exception.
So even though I expect Crosby to approach 90 points this season and Neal is certainly showing no ill effects of not finding alternative work during the lockout, Malkin will continue to be the Penguin most likely to dominate for at least the next few games.
An extended trip home was probably good for Malkin’s soul, but the Penguins are enjoying the tangible benefits the most.