The Other Pens Center

By Chris DiMaria

Without second-line center Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins have gone 1-5-1 in their past seven games. Malkin has been out of commission since suffering a lower-body injury in a losing effort March 14th against the Boston Bruins, but hopes to come back this weekend and lead a late push for a high seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Malkin went down in the first period of that bout after taking a big hit from Bruins center Chris Kelley. Although he returned a short while later, Malkin did not touch the ice after the end of the first period. He was later listed as day-to-day, and almost two weeks later is ready to make his return for the last eight games of the season.

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Before his injury, Malkin was a contender for the Hart Trophy with his impressive campaign this season. Through 60 games, Malkin led the NHL in points per game at 1.12, according to NHL.com. He also has been highly touted by teammates and opponents alike.

Newly acquired defenseman Ian Cole praised Malkin’s play after less than a week with the team: “I’ve played with him two games now, and wow. The things he can do are absolutely scary. He’s really great right now,” Cole said in a Rotoworld article.

Big names have led the headliners for Hart Trophy consideration, including Metropolitan Division rival center John Tavares of the New York Islanders. However, Malkin needs to be in that consideration. On a team that features goal-scorers like Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, Malkin leads the Penguins in goals with 28 and points with 67, according to the team’s official site.

Those 67 points ranked Malkin towards the top of the league, placing him three points out of the NHL scoring lead, according to Rotoworld.com.

Malkin had been red-hot before he was sidelined; he had tallied 14 points over 9 games going into March 14th’s matchup with Boston. The Penguins had benefited over that streak, winning 7 of those 9 matchups.

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Malkin’s productivity directly affected the team around him as well. This season, wingers Chris Kunitz, David Perron and Steve Downie have all spent significant time on Malkin’s second line, and have all benefited from his impressive play.

The second-line center draws a good amount of attention, which opens up opportunities for his linemates playing on the wing. Steve Downie had recorded 26 points before Malkin went down, which was the least of those three three wingers, according to ESPN.com.

Chris Kunitz and David Perron both had 39, with Perron riding a streak of four points in as many games, according to ESPN.com.

But when Malkin went down, the productivity of these three wingers dropped mightily. Since that March 14th game against the Bruins, Kunitz, Perron and Downie have only recorded two points combined in seven matchups, both coming as goals (NHL.com).

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These numbers indicate a scary trend for the Malkinless Penguins, as Kunitz, Perron and Downie are three of the top-five points leaders among wingers on the team, according to the Pens’ official site. Also, Pittsburgh has managed to score an average of just under 1.3 goals per game over that seven-game stretch, as compared to its season average of 2.7.

The Penguins currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, and fifth place in the Eastern Conference. With nine games left in the schedule, they will only be able to realistically aim for a fourth-place finish at best. With Malkin back in the lineup, however, the Pens should be able to surpass the Islanders, who hold a slim two-point advantage.

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