Much of the run-up to Wednesday night’s nationally-televised game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins has been focused on the previous time these black-and-gold clad teams got together, and for good reason.
We all remember how the Bruins stifled the previously free-wheeling Penguins in an Eastern Conference final sweep last June, limiting Pittsburgh to two goals in four games – and keeping superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin off the scoresheet altogether.
Sobered by the humbling defeat, the Penguins made some adjustments in the offseason to prepare themselves better for tight-checking games. The results have been good so far, as Pittsburgh has allowed the sixth-fewest goals (29) in the NHL through 12 games; Pittsburgh was 10th in that category in the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season.
As for the offense, Crosby continues to power that aspect of the Pens’ game, leading the league with 20 points (8g, 12a) while averaging nearly 23 minutes of ice time per game, tops among Pittsburgh forwards. Malkin has accumulated 10 points (3g, 7a) in the season’s first month, ranking him third on the team behind winger Chris Kunitz, who has 12.
There are legitimate reasons behind Malkin’s so-so start. James Neal has missed just about every minute of the regular season with a mysterious injury, and his chemistry with Malkin over the past three seasons has been beautiful to watch. Malkin doesn’t have a paint-by-numbers style, often doubling back against the flow of play and dishing passes at angles and speeds most players wouldn’t dare. Neal has shown a knack for thinking along with “Geno” on the fly, with the results often spectacular.
Jussi Jokinen (seven points) has done serviceable work alongside Malkin, but their synergy seems to have faded recently. Jokinen has but one point, a goal, in his last five games while Malkin has just two assists in that same timeframe. Beau Bennett appears to be getting closer to health, but it’s uncertain if returning him to Malkin’s line will help Pittsburgh’s scoring depth.
I hesitate to compare Malkin to Crosby, since they’re completely different players; however, with both making $8.7 million annually for the next several years, the Penguins need both to produce at superstar levels. Only No. 87 is holding up his end of the bargain at this point of the season.
Malkin defenders will say his lack of consistent linemates this year has held him back, and I will concede that point. Crosby’s having Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis on his wings game in and game out has certainly been a boon to all three, and the Penguins as a whole.
But Crosby’s not a one-dimensional player. While he has telepathic connections to Kunitz and Dupuis, coach Dan Bylsma has the confidence to put him out with less familiar wingers, as he did frequently in Monday’s 3-1 win at Carolina. In that game, Crosby took intermittent shifts with Joe Vitale and rookie Jayson Megna, the latter of whom earned his first two NHL points with Sid as his centerman.
Watch as Crosby takes a pass from Brooks Orpik in Monday’s third period and, with Megna in front of the net, simply flicks a quick shot toward the Hurricanes crease. The puck bounces in off Megna’s leg for a key insurance goal, all because Crosby decided to keep it simple while skating with lesser talents:
It’s difficult to imagine Malkin taking the direct approach in a similar situation, which is probably why Bylsma doesn’t trust him to adjust. He clearly does with Crosby, and that’s why Sid gets extra opportunities to help the Penguins win.
Crosby has always been one of the more straight-line stars in recent NHL vintage. He’s been described, quite accurately, as a fourth-line grinder with world-class talent. Malkin arguably has better skill than Crosby, but it only manifests itself in a wide-open style of game.
Both Crosby and Malkin were ineffective against the Bruins in last year’s playoffs. However, if Malkin can’t find a way to translate his abilities to more situations, I like Crosby’s chances to redeem himself in tight late-season games much more than No. 71′s.
Notes: According to the Penguins, defenseman Rob Scuderi had successful surgery on his broken left ankle. He figures to miss at least the next couple months…Marc-Andre Fleury will get his third straight start in goal, and Dustin Jeffrey will replace the injured Chuck Kobasew in the Pittsburgh lineup.