Is it genius because it worked, or did it work because it was genius? There’s lots of perspectives on NHL coaching, especially analyzing decisions after the fact.
Either way, when it is said that “Mike Sullivan pushes all the right buttons” decisions like putting Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter together is a perfect example of that. It was an unconventional and out of the box move to pair Malkin with two right handed shots in Carter and Kasperi Kapanen. It also put Carter on the left wing, the one forward position he basically has not played.
And yet, it was also born out of necessity. With Jason Zucker injured, and the COVID list snatching away scoring or middle-line capable wingers wingers in Bryan Rust, Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen, what else was Sullivan to do? Playing Malkin + Carter together fell in his lap with not many other viable alternatives last night.
It couldn’t have gone much better, with Malkin and Carter combining to score four goals on the night. One of Malkin’s was on the power play, and one of Carter’s was into an empty net, but the fact remains that the proverbial lever that Sullivan reached out and pulled ended up being the exact correct move for the team. As it seemingly always is.
It can be sometimes difficult to quantify or specifically point to where coaching inputs for NHL teams can have great impacts, but it’s easy and obvious to see that the lineup Sullivan created last night set the stage for a winning game plan.
“We wanted to make sure that we surrounded Geno with the right people that could help him have success,” Sullivan said after the game.
Well, done and done.
One other benefit and hidden bonus of the perhaps unexpected Carter-Malkin duo is that it also allows Sullivan to insulate Malkin on faceoffs. As mentioned in the recap, Carter was almost exclusively tasked with draws for the line last night. Carter is at an impressive 59.1% on faceoffs this season, which has been a career-long weakness for Malkin (44.2%). As play started, Malkin played like the center with deep defensive responsibilities, and Carter played high in the zone or on the wall defensively like a winger would, a flip from their alignment.
For his part, Malkin was happy with the combination.
“Cartsy, he played an unbelievable game tonight, for sure,” Malkin said. “It’s easy to play with him. I think we have good chemistry tonight, and I hope we play a long time together.”
It didn’t take long for Malkin to announce his return with authority, scoring two second period goals and adding an assist on Carter’s game-sealing ENG left a three point night and made a huge statement for the returning Russian superstar.
“I could go on and on about the impact that [Malkin] has and how he makes us a better team,” Sullivan said. “But for me, I think that’s why this team has had the success that it’s had over the years, with the core players here and Sid and Geno being at being at the very forefront of that. It’s just for me, they’ve been the best one-two punch in the league for a decade-plus.”
It’s all smiles and good vibes after a return like that. Malkin gave a quote talking about his pre-game instruction from Sullivan that was insightful as well.
Malkin: "Coach told me before the game play short, play simple and you’ll be fine. I tried to do it... It’s not perfect, but It’s a long season. I hope we get in playoffs and I do my best. Just happy the first game is done, we win and just keep going."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 12, 2022
“Play short, play simple”, nice pointers from the coach to the player, basic but important. Again, another right button pushed by Sullivan to get the mindset of the player right and ready to perform for him.
And just because Malkin did make a pass from the wall to an open Carter for the open goal, he did confirm he was thinking hat trick for a second, before wisely not attempting a shot that wasn’t there for him.
Malkin was not thinking pass first on the last goal— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 12, 2022
"No, I think shoot first!"
Was worried if he missed, it would be icing. "I see Carts, he’s a righty, he’s open. I'm always being nice to my partners, you know what I mean? (Laughs) But I hope I score a hat trick soon."
That’s Malkin, always nice to his partners. And for last night, it was the coach who made sure to put the perfect one out there for him.