There is nothing wrong with not winning a Stanley Cup Playoff series in five games. So the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Game 5 loss itself on Wednesday is not really the problem. The problem is the way the Penguins lost, when they had a chance to actually win the series in five games. You do not want to let that opportunity slip away when you have a chance to clinch a series because there are so many variables that can happen the rest of the way. Luck, bounces, goaltending, and injuries, or some combination of all four at the same time.
The Penguins not only missed a huge chance to win on Wednesday, they also lost their best player and captain Sidney Crosby with no exact idea of when he will be able to return to the lineup. It could be Friday for Game 6 in Pittsburgh. Or it could be later. Nobody really knows. Add in the uncertainty with starting goalie Tristan Jarry (he appears to be getting closer), winger Rickard Rakell (also closer), and defenseman Brian Dumoulin (not closer) and there is a lot of injury concern there.
If Crosby is unable to play on Friday that means the Penguins are almost certainly going to need a big game from their other big center, Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin has not been bad in the playoffs so far, but he has also not really had a signature Malkin game or actively taken over a game. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 1, and overall his line has been solid with Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen, but there is more there. At least there should be. You hope there is. If there was ever a time for the Penguins to see it, this would be the time.
Not only because the Penguins would need that sort of performance in Crosby’s absence (if he cannot play), but also because a loss would mean that this would possibly be the final home game of the Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang era. That is a reality you have to keep in mind given the contract situations with Malkin and Letang this offseason, as well as there being no guarantees with a potential Game 7 on Sunday if the series gets to that point. Nobody wants to see that era close out with a disappointing performance. Especially after the way Game 5 went on Wednesday.
With Crosby sidelined and Malkin elevated to the top line in the third period, his game ended by him colliding with Jake Guentzel in the offensive zone and nearly leading to a Rangers goal the other way, and then a really undisciplined cross-checking penalty later in the period to put the Penguins shorthanded. They need more than that. They need better than that. They know Malkin is capable of more, even if we have not consistently seen it this season.
He has had his share of big playoff moments throughout his career, and if Crosby is unable to go on Friday they really need another one in Game 6 of this series. It is hard to imagine them winning Game 6 (or this series) without Crosby if Malkin is unable to step forward and dominate the way he has so many times when Crosby has been out of the lineup.
As shaky as his game was on Wednesday I still think it was a rare miss by head coach Mike Sullivan to not immediately put him on the top line between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust when Crosby initially exited the game. Instead, he went with Jeff Carter in that spot and the top line immediately got pinned in its own zone for an extended shift (something that had not happened in the first four games of the series) and then allowed the Rangers’ first goal, igniting their second period rally. Later, Carter got walked in the slot for the go-ahead goal. If the Penguins do not have that initial shift and Rangers goal happen, I wonder how the rest of that game goes. Maybe the Penguins are already getting ready for the Second Round.
As it stands, if Crosby can not play I would start with Malkin between Guentzel and Rust on the top line, and then consider reuniting the Kasperi Kapanen, Evan Rodrigues, and Jason Zucker line that was so good and effective earlier this season (dominating puck possession and scoring chances and outscoring opponents by a 7-0 margin in just a little bit more than 100 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey when it was together this season). I would then put Teddy Blueger in a third-line role and try to limit Carter’s unit as much as possible.
That, of course, is if Crosby (and Rakell for that matter) can not play. One player who will be in the lineup is Malkin. In order to move on, the Pens are likely going to need him to be special.