We finally got a chance to see Rickard Rakell play on Evgeni Malkin’s wing on Sunday evening, and it might have been the Pittsburgh Penguins’ best overall line in an 11-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Malkin had four points, including a hat trick, while Rakell got on the scoresheet for the first time as a member of the Penguins recording two assists and scoring his first goal in a three-point effort. Even more than the three points, he was constantly around the net with the puck on his stick, creating chances and providing a net-front presence on a couple of goals (including Malkin’s hat trick goal that he very nearly managed to get a stick on).
It was a well-deserved day for the Penguins’ newest forward who has had a share of near-misses over his first few games with the team.
The Penguins have obviously taken their time easing Rakell into the lineup over his first few games, initially starting him off on the third line as to not overwhelm him in a new system and on a new team. By the time they were ready to put him into the spot they acquired him to play — alongside Malkin on the second line — during Friday’s game in New York, Malkin was out of the lineup due to an illness and delayed it at least one more game. When we saw it on Sunday, it was pretty much what you hoped it would look like.
Even before Sunday’s game I have liked what I have seen from Rakell so far, even in an admittedly small sample size. His talent his been obvious at times, making a lot of little skill plays in tight spaces, and nearly ending Tuesday’s Wednesday’s overtime game in Buffalo with a slick move that would have been a highlight reel goal if he could have finished it. Even before finally finding the back of the net on Sunday he had a couple of really good looks. He has also played with a bit more physicality along the boards than he was advertised to bring.
In only four games he has generated a lot of shot attempts (averaging more than 15 individual shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play) and is starting to get more on net, especially now that he has a player like Malkin feeding him the puck.
This is a potential game-changer for the Penguins because one of the big things they have been missing this season has been adequate linemates for Malkin on the second line, and they now have a lot of options. It seems like a given that Rakell is going to continue to get a look there, and whether the second winger on that line is Bryan Rust (as we saw for most of Sunday) or Jason Zucker when he returns (with Rust to returning to Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel’s line, allowing Evan Rodrigues to drop down to a third-line role) it should give Malkin significantly better options on his wings than he has had for most of the season. What is remarkable about Malkin’s play is that even with the lack of consistency on his wings, and even with the fact he missed half of the season after coming back from major offseason knee surgery in his age 35 season, he still has 16 goals in 30 games and is averaging more than a point-per-game. He is currently playing at a 43-goal pace over 82 games even with all of those variables. Give him top-six caliber wingers and suddenly the Penguins once again have two elite lines at the top of their lineup, while the entire lineup looks significantly deeper than it has gotten credit for being.
The secondary scoring is already starting to get back on track after a little bit of a lull there for a few weeks. For the season the Penguins still have a plus-12 goal differential during 5-on-5 play when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice, while averaging 2.48 goals per 60 minutes. Going back to the beginnig of March and that goal differential is still a very respectable plus-six while they are averaging 2.67 goals per 60 minutes. That is better than their full season average.
With Rakell in the mix, Zucker returning, and players like Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon being replaced with some players that are capable of providing more consistent offense this is once again looking like a very, very balanced offensive hockey team that can get goal scoring production from all four lines.