The Eastern Conference playoff race has become an increasingly tight race over the past couple of weeks and your Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the teams sitting on the bubble at the bottom of the playoff picture.
Things started to look a little bleak on Sunday afternoon having entered the day on the outside of the playoff picture, the latest they have been in such a position since the 2008-09 season. With a chance to move back into a spot with a win over a rebuilding New York Rangers team, they allowed a two-goal lead to slip away and then found themselves facing a four-minute penalty kill entering the third period.
It is not that a loss in that position would have been a season-crusher or wrecked their playoff chances, but it would have been a brutal way to give up two important points in the standings.
Instead of letting it totally slip away, the Penguins responded with what might have been the most important five minutes of their season to this point by perfectly killing off the double-minor penalty, and then just one minute later regaining the lead on a highlight reel connection between Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
Evgeni Malkin followed that up by scoring two more goals over the next five minutes to give the Penguins all of the necessary insurance they would need.
And it is very fitting that his ridiculous backhand goal ended up going in the books as the game-winner, because that goal needs to be remembered in all of its brilliance for being the huge goal that it was.
There are a couple of positive developments to take away from Sunday’s game, and some are going to end up being more important than others.
First, the Penguins responded when they needed to.
Too many times this season we’ve seen them lose games like Sunday and leave valuable points on the table. It’s a big reason they have one of the best goal differentials in the conference and are currently clinging to a playoff spot by the slimmest of margins. Whether or not that win serves as some kind of a jumping off point from here remains to be seen. I’m skeptical about how much momentum carries over to the next game in situations like this because it’s a fresh start with a new opponent and everyone in a new mindset.
It still can not hurt to win a game the way they did given all of the circumstances within the game itself and the bigger picture in the standings.
They needed two points, it felt like two points were on the verge of slipping away, and they were able to rise to the occasion and secure the two points. All good.
The most important development, however, was the return of the dominant version Evgeni Malkin.
As I’ve written over the past week or so here, we can talk about his “down” season and how weirdly frustrating it has been all we want. The fact remains that he is an elite, superstar talent and even in a down year is still one of the most productive players in the world and still somebody that can make a difference in the lineup. You notice him when he is not there.
Over his past few games, we have also started to really notice him when he is there.
His games against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia were probably two of his better performances since the first two weeks of the season ... right up until he got himself injured against Tampa Bay in a fight with Steven Stamkos, sidelining him for five games, and then earning a one-game suspension for swinging his stick at Michael Raffl in Philadelphia.
He was showing signs of being Evgeni Malkin.
The Evgeni Malkin the Penguins need to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
In the third period on Saturday he nearly single-handedly brought the team back from a three-goal deficit by scoring two goals and just missing on a couple of more chances later in the game.
The Penguins are still a flawed team (like pretty much everyone in the NHL outside of Tampa Bay) and I’m not sure there are enough assets to move or trades to be made over the next week to fix all of those flaws. The Penguins’ ticket to a deep playoff run is going to be based on how far their superstars can carry them.
Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang have been at that level all season. Matt Murray has shown signs of getting back to that level ever since returning to the lineup in the middle of December. And now Evgeni Malkin is starting to emerge, which could mean that Phil Kessel starts to get lifted out of his recent funk.
There is no replacement for elite talents playing at their best, and for all of the flaws the Penguins have they still have more elite talent than most teams in the league. It’s just a matter of all of them starting to click at the same time.
Maybe we are starting to get to that point, and maybe this weekend with the re-emergence of beast mode Evgeni Malkin is the jumping off point we look back to later this spring.