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Why Evgeni Malkin is the most important player for the Penguins down the stretch

What kind of Malkin will the Pens get in crunch time? The answer may determine the outcome of their season

NHL: Florida Panthers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This initial thought might make you recoil, but stick with me for a second. Evgeni Malkin is the most important player for Penguins over these last upcoming 36 games of their season, and what level of play he provides will likely serve to be make or break for the team.

The immediate gasp might be to think about Sidney Crosby, but Sidney Crosby brings it and performs at a certain level every night. He’s always going to do his part in order to help the team. The goaltending has been fine and is capable of staying that way, generally speaking. Those elements have been the constants this year, and aren’t likely to improve.

When thinking about what the Pens need to improve this year on the ice, the three biggest items are: the power play, the defense and the second line. Can’t really help on that middle aspect, but an uptick by Malkin goes a long way to take care of the other two sore spots and pain points on the team.

The question then becomes something along the lines of, “yeah, but how likely is Malkin going to play to a level to get the team in?” — and there’s something to be said about that.

Pittsburgh is the NHL’s oldest team. They’ve put a lot of eggs in the proverbial baskets of aging stars. Sometimes it works out, like when Malkin earned the Pens a point last week in Florida with a last-minute goal on a pass from fellow NHL-AARP’er Crosby. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

There’s no doubt that Malkin is slowing down, and in the quite literal sense. The skating speed and ability to take over games through the middle of the ice is leaving the 37-year old. Based on NHL Edge data, Malkin’s burst is diminishing quickly this year.

That’s not to say players who play at a slower speed are necessarily bad, but in today’s game based increasingly around a faster pace, it’s not a great development for Malkin. Father time does no jobs and Malkin isn’t escaping that.

The bigger deal for Malkin isn’t his legs, though, it’s what is going on between the ears. Malkin’s confidence has been hit lately, showcased at rock bottom by creating an own goal against Arizona. It took a few days before he could even collect himself enough to speak to the media about the incident.

“It’s a little bit down for my confidence.”

“I hope now I feel so much better because everybody show me this video when I score own net, it’s like, I know it’s bad luck. Sometimes it happens,” said Malkin, who now has 16 goals this season. “We lost the last two games (to Arizona and Vegas), we did not play great.

“We’re back home and we play back-to-back, huge game tonight, and we understand we’re still fighting for playoffs, you know? We fight all night and I try to help the team win every game. Every goal is very important for me, but after the last game, it’s huge for me, for sure.”

It’s a wild concept that a player who has proven so much and been so good for so long can battle with a positive mindset like anyone else, but NHL players are human. The Pens still believe Malkin can and will help them.

“He’s still an elite player in this game,” Mike Sullivan said last week after Malkin’s late goal helped earn the Pens a point against Florida. “We believe strongly that he’s going to be part of the solution here moving forward. He’s just too talented a guy, he’s too good of a person not to be,” Sullivan said.

“Nobody’s harder on himself than Geno. He understands that we rely on him to produce offense for us and when he doesn’t, nobody feels it more than he does. So it’s never from a lack of effort with G, he’s a hard-working guy, he’s a real competitive guy. So hopefully, that goal at the end, that’s a huge goal that helps us get a hard-earned point. Hopefully, he’ll gain a bit of confidence from that.”

For all the negative talk, self-doubt and bad vibes — Malkin still does have 40 points in 46 games this season. If January was a low point and new reality, that reality still included producing nine points (2G+7A) in 11 games last month.

The Penguins need a lot that has gone wrong or so-so to pick up for them in the last two months of the season. The degree to what performance they get out of Evgeni Malkin might just be the key point on if the team has a successful season or not. A proud player who has done a lot for them in the last nearly 20 years, a lot is going to be on Malkin’s plate to kick in secondary scoring and do his part on the power play to right the ship.