Down goes Zbynek Michalek and in comes Evgeni Malkin. Most would take the exchange. The Penguins, however, are just looking forward to the end of the injury carousel.
Pittsburgh won their fourth consecutive game last night but the victory took a back seat to Malkin’s return. The star center had not played in almost two weeks and was absent for seven of the Penguins first ten games.
Malkin may not have dazzled on the score sheet but he played exceptionally well in his first game since October 13th. His three shots and nearly twenty minutes of ice time both ranked in the top three among Penguin forwards.
Most encouraging is that the chemistry between Malkin, James Neal, and Steve Sullivan clearly survived the star’s lengthy layoff. Over the past two seasons Malkin has drifted away from his elite passing ability. There is no such concern this year. His line combined for 11 of the Penguins 29 shots last night while Neal and Sullivan both looked more dangerous with Malkin on the ice. Geno created space, trusted his linemates, and even benefited from their play.
Neal is the prime beneficiary of Malkin’s return. For much of the season Neal was forced to create his own shot. Last night his table was set by Malkin on multiple occasions. If Neal does continue to create his own shot and receives additional help from Malkin there is no reason why he cannot post 40 goals this season.
Geno and Neal are arguably the two strongest Penguins to knock off the puck. It is because of that skill that they work so well together. Each is so dangerous in their own right that they draw pressure away from the other one.
Their chemistry is also aided by the fact that both utilize the entire ice to their advantage. Many forwards stick to the perimeter or stay low in the offensive zone. Neal and Malkin don’t. Often times Neal fills Geno’s vacated space allowing Malkin to drop a pass past the vacuum of defenders he created. In turn, this opens up a golden scoring opportunity or perfect give-and-go. This effect is lost when Neal (or Malkin for that matter) is placed with a more straight-lined forward.
The third piece of the line is Sullivan. He played his best game of the season last night and may be the smartest healthy forward on the Penguins. He determines his move before he possesses the puck. It will be interesting to see where Sullivan winds up when the Penguins are fully healthy—my bet is alongside Sidney Crosby.
Defensively, the Penguins under performed last night. If not for Marc-Andre Fleury the Islanders likely would have snapped their two game skid.
Not much needs to be said about Fleury. He is clearly one of the NHL’s best goaltenders. He kept the Penguins in the game early and closed it out late.
Part of the reason why the Flower was so stellar against the Islanders was because of Paul Martin. He was sound defensively, didn’t try to do too much offensively, and took chances only when necessary. If Martin were to play every game like he played last night’s there would be no complaints. The most frustrating part of that statement is that he is capable of playing that game every night.
Perhaps some of the early Islanders pressure was due to the odd defensive combination of Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland. The two played together early and lacked the crispness that the usual Orpik-Letang paring provides. Orpik particularly mishandled two pucks early. Each turnover almost lead to a goal. Fortunately, he made up for the early blunders by springing Pascal Dupuis for a breakaway on the games first goal.
I’ll end on this note. Is it possible that Craig Adams is the odd man out?
What does Adams provide that Richard Park or Joe Vitale doesn’t? Right now it looks as though Mark Letestu is out of a job. But, slow start or not, Letestu does have more offensive talent than Adams. He is fully capable of posting 20 goals in the NHL. Also, both Park and Vitale are able to match Adams’ defensive play while each provide more offensive punch.
Making the decision tough is the fact that Vitale and Park are both on two-way contracts and would not have to clear waivers if sent down. Adams is likely safe, but there are options to consider.