After missing the first two games of the Pittsburgh Penguins First Round series with the New York Islanders, Evgeni Malkin was back in the lineup for their 5-4 Game 3 win on Thursday night.
Getting a player like Malkin back in the middle of a playoff series is a potential game-changer because, well, he is Evgeni Malkin and a slam dunk Hall of Famer. Player like that can make a difference, especially when it gives the Penguins a quartet of centers down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Jeff Carter, and Teddy Blueger. That is tough to match up with if you are an opponent.
So how did he and his line look in his return?
Let us examine a little!
His line saw the least ice time
Was this the result of the Malkin line not being among their best lines, a sign that he did not want to rush Malkin back in after missing so much time in the second half of the season, or a reflection of how good the other lines have been playing? Honestly, probably a good mix of all three scenarios.
The Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen, Jason Zucker trio logged just 7:28 of 5-on-5 ice-time on Thursday, by far the lowest total of the Penguins’ four lines.
The Crosby line logged nearly 14 minutes, the Carter line played 10 minutes, and the Blueger line played more than nine minutes.
The Crosby line goes without saying. That is always going to be the group that drives the bus and leads the way. But how can you possibly limit the other two lines right now? The Blueger line has lived up to its buzzsaw nickname in this series defensively and scored two more goals in the Game 3 win. The Carter line, meanwhile, has arguably been THE BEST line overall for several games now, not only scoring goals but also completely owning the puck. How do you limit either line right now? You can not.
The Malkin line did have its struggles at times
Statistically speaking it was not the best night for this group overall.
In their seven minutes they spent much of the night defending in their own zone (not where you want them!) and posted the worst shot attempt (30.7 percent), expected goal (22 percent) and scoring chance (20 percent) differentials of the four lines. They were also the only line to get outscored during 5-on-5 play (one goal for, two goals against).
You probably should not read too much into that because 1) it is only one game, their first game back together in the playoffs, and 2) they did play much better together during the regular season.
Still, it makes sense in this particular game why they had the least ice time.
Having said that...
Malkin did still contribute offensively
While the line itself was not great, Malkin did make his presence felt in some big moments.
Before his injury back in March he was starting to get rolling offensively. He also had four assists in his first four games back after returning. On Thursday, he had two more helpers.
He set up Zucker’s late second period goal to give the Penguins some much-needed cushion going into the third period, and then set up Carter for his second goal of the game on the power play to help the Penguins swing momentum back in their favor after the Islanders had tied the game at three midway through the third period. Even if he is not at his absolute best he can still help change a game.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign
It has always been my belief that the best sign for when you are about to get the very best version of Evgeni Malkin is when you notice him making plays defensively. While his line as a whole did not have a great night, I did see a couple of moments from Malkin individually that stood out, specifically in the first period when he went down to block not one, but two shots in the defensive zone. There was another play where he perfectly read a pass, jumped into the lane, picked it off and nearly started a rush the other way. Small things? Maybe. But usually a good sign of where Malkin’s head and overall game is trending. Something to watch for as the series and playoffs continue.