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Penguins’ playoff fate might hinge on Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin playing Game 2
Evgeni Malkin wants to play.That information isn’t coming from Malkin or sources. However, any observer at Penguins practice Monday — a brief, brisk session at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex — would have not been able to miss Malkin pushing his injured right knee to its limits.His straight-line stride appeared strong, fluid, free and easy.
By Rob Rossi 5h ago
The same could not be said of his starts and stops. Malkin seemed to hesitate slightly, occasionally glancing down to his right without wincing, but flashing a look of annoyance — as if he had sent a one-timer wide while ripping on a power play.
His turns could be described as not quite (but close to) labored.
Malkin attempted lateral movement about as often as he took part in regular line shifts. He resisted leaning into any break-in shots on goaltenders. He wasn’t all that involved in what passed for line rushes and power-play drills.
Kasperi Kapanen, Malkin’s right-hand man when both players were healthy during the regular season, said “Geno’s one of a kind.”
There is no doubt.
There was no indication on Monday, though, whether the Penguins will have their “one of a kind” Russian bear for as close to a must-win Game 2 as they have faced in a good many postseasons.
Officially, Malkin’s status is “day to day, a game-time decision,” coach Mike Sullivan said. Notably, Sullivan did not answer definitively when asked specifically if Malkin had experienced a setback in the four regular-season games he played in after missing 23 consecutive because of a right knee injury. “It’s just been part of the process that Geno’s been going through,” Sullivan said. “He’s obviously trying to get back as soon as he can for us right now.”
A knee-on-knee collision in the Penguins’ regular-season finale concerned Malkin. Publicly, the Penguins downplayed the incident, but Malkin’s limited participation in practice the day before Game 1 indicated a shift away from internal optimism that he would play in the Penguins’ postseason opener.
He did not. In fact, Malkin did not even take warmups before the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders in Game 1 of an East Division seminal series Sunday afternoon.
Nobody with the Penguins or Malkin’s camp has suggested his status for the best-of-seven series is in doubt. Nor is anybody from either side guaranteeing he will play.
Increasingly clear is that the version of Malkin the Penguins will get when he does return probably won’t be close to the form of a player that twice has paced the NHL in postseason points (2009, 2017), a Conn Smythe Trophy winner with a 1.02 per game scoring average in the playoffs that is second only to teammate Sidney Crosby, or even the guy that posted 12 points in eight games before his initial injury on March 16.
Malkin himself had not expected to be at any of those levels for the start of this postseason before his latest round of right-knee troubles, sources said. So, it’s anybody’s guess as to what impact Malkin can make if and when he does play against the Islanders.
The Penguins did go 16-5-2 without Malkin during his regular-season absence. That record, along with the power play’s 27.6 percent efficiency (16 for 58) and trade-deadline acquisition Jeff Carter’s invigorating run, probably gave credence to external chatter a near-peak Malkin was not necessary for the division-winning Penguins.Nothing could be further from reality.
As constructed, even with what is generally viewed as their deepest group of forwards since back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins are built to win in the postseason because, put simply, they have Crosby and Malkin and opponents don’t. That’s history talking, by the way.
Crosby & Malkin P/GP (postseason)
Series Won 1.22 (137 in 114)
Series Lost 0.69 (37 in 57)
Recent history has the Penguins having lost 10 of 11 playoff games, with Crosby at 0.64 and Malkin at 0.50 points per game, respectively.
Series Won 1.22 (137 in 114)
Series Lost 0.60 (31 in 52)
Bottom line: Unless the 2021 postseason proves an outlier, the Penguins’ chances against the Islanders likely depend less on goaltending and more on whether Malkin can return — in presence and as a force — before the Islanders take too commanding a series lead.
What about Dumoulin?
Stars scoring-dependent as they have been over the past 14 postseasons, Kris Letang should probably rate as the defenseman they could least do without.
Not really. (Not that they would cherish the notion of playing without Letang, the 2017 Cup win notwithstanding.)
Brian Dumoulin is that defenseman — in part because he and Letang have few rivals as top defense pairings. And Dumoulin has established his own reputation as an all-around ace from the back end. His passing, on display with a masterful breakout sling before he assisted on Crosby’s deflection goal in Game 1, largely is ignored as a strength; mostly, this is because Dumoulin is so good at own-zone defending in any situation, he is a smooth skater and he’s been playing his best in big games since college.
A spot on Team USA at the Olympics is within Dumoulin’s grasp. Especially if Sullivan is the coach. Or even not, provided Dumoulin can stay healthy.
That’s been an issue the past couple of regular seasons, though. Dumoulin has played in only 69 of 125 games because of lower-body injuries, specifically ankle/foot ailments.
Surely, the Penguins are hoping Dumoulin isn’t dealing with another serious injury to that area of his body.
Dumoulin grimaced noticeably Sunday after a puck hit his skate boot, but he finished the game. He did not practice Monday, a “maintenance day” Sullivan said. Letang spent practice working with Mike Matheson and Chad Ruhwedel as defense partners.
Presumably, Ruhwedel would play in Game 2 — although not necessarily as Letang’s defense partner — if Dumoulin is not available.
The Penguins went 8-7-0 without Dumoulin in the regular season, surrendering 3.00 goals-against per game, up 0.37 from their average. They are a respectable 32-22-2 without Dumoulin the past two seasons, but their GAA without Dumoulin is 2.76, or .10 worse than their overall average.
Bottom line: A difference in GAA of .10 might not track terribly in the regular season. In a short series, the difference could be devastating against any opponent. The Islanders aren’t just any opponent. They’re coached by Barry Trotz, one of the great defensive bench bosses in modern NHL history.
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