Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins with only 34 seconds to play on Monday night, lifting them to a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars to extend their current winning streak to six consecutive games.
It was a goal he richly deserved, not only because it snapped a 10-game goal-less drought, but also for the way he played all night. It was, quite honestly, Malkin at his two-way best.
It was also one of the Penguins’ best wins of the season as they played a top team in the league, shut down an MVP candidate in Jason Robertson, and played a rock-solid game from top-to-bottom.
It was Malkin’s performance that really stood out to me on Monday night because all of the telltale signs were there to indicate that he is really starting to feel it right now. It might be the sign that his season is about to really start going well for him and the Penguins.
While his goal-scoring had dried up a bit over the past few weeks, he was still generating offense and brought a five-game point streak into Monday’s game that saw him tally seven assists. Given the way his season has gone it is only a matter of time until he starts scoring goals again as well. All of the underlying numbers have pointed to it, from his individual shot numbers to the team-wide possession numbers when he is on the ice.
Entering play on Monday he was averaging more than 3.15 shots on goal per game, but was also stuck with an 8.5 shooting percentage and had not scored a goal in more 30 consecutive shots on goal. The shot numbers are right in line with Malkin when he has been at his best in his career, while the Penguins have had a dominant shot attempt and expected goals edge when he has been on the ice this season. The only thing that has held back his own individual goal scoring has been the shooting percentage that has been among the lowest of his career. I do not think he suddenly forgot how to finish and it is probably only a matter of time until that percentage regresses back to the mean and goals start falling in for him.
His goal on Monday might be the start of turning that around.
But it was not just the goal that was so encouraging in that regard.
It was the way he played away from the puck.
The greatest telltale sign for when Malkin is playing at his best is when he is making plays without the puck on his stick and creating havoc defensively. When you see him on the backcheck and ripping the puck away from opposing puck carriers and forcing turnovers, that is when you know he is ON IT.
We saw that exact thing more than one time on Monday night, including a beautiful takeaway on the backcheck in the third period that led to a scoring chance the other way. There were at least two or three shifts where he made similar plays. Beyond even that, he was making every smart play with the puck. Especially in the neutral zone and around the blue line. He was in control, not taking unnecessary risks, and playing the the 200-foot game that can change games for the better.
He is already averaging a point-per-game (again) this season and that is with a near career-low shooting percentage. His line with Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker has been very strong overall, and when combined with the way the Sidney Crosby line is going it gives the Penguins two legitimate scoring lines that can take over a game. It should not be a surprise, and it was exactly why the Penguins were correct to bring back the core for another run.
They can obviously still play at a ridiculously high level even into their mid-late 30s. As long as they can play at that level, it would have been crazy to try something different with the roster. I do not know if the Penguins will ultimately have the depth to win a Stanley Cup this season, and until the goaltending comes through in the playoffs I am going to have at least some skepticism toward that position, but as long as the top players are playing like this the Penguins are always going to have an excellent team and an excellent chance to compete.
Crosby is playing at an MVP level this season, and Malkin is still going at a point-per-game pace and starting to reach an even higher level. They still have it, and they can still carry the Penguins.