Malkin tries to adjust heat from Senators
Saturday, April 14, 2007
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
OTTAWA -- Evgeni Malkin has been in playoffs before and figured he knew what it is like to chase a championship at this time of year.
But nothing in the Russian Super League prepared Malkin for what he experienced in the Penguins' 6-3 loss to Ottawa in Game 1 of their opening-round series Wednesday.
The pace was faster, the hitting harder, the passions higher than anything he remembered from his days with Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
"He said playoff intensity in Russia does not go as high as it is here," said Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Malkin's friend, countryman and landlord. "He'll probably need some adjustment."
No problem. The Penguins surely will be happy to give Malkin all the time he needs to get acclimated. As long as the process is complete by the time Game 2 begins at 3:08 p.m. today at Scotiabank Place, that is.
For while nearly everyone in their lineup will have to significantly upgrade his game if the Penguins are to have a reasonable chance to even the series this afternoon, Malkin can raise his more than most.
Not only because he was such a non-factor for most of Game 1 -- he had a few spasms of brilliance, and long stretches when he was flatter than a shadow -- but because the ceiling on his game is so much higher than it is for most players.
"He's got all the right tools," linemate Ryan Malone said.
Malkin proved that during the regular season, when he was the top scorer among NHL rookies with 33 goals and 52 assists in 78 games.
Even so, the NHL grind seemed to wear him down. Consider that in his first 27 games in the league, Malkin had 10 with two or more points, but in the final 27, he managed just five.
That's compelling evidence that Malkin had gotten accustomed to the Super League's 52-game schedule.
"You always have a couple days between games," Gonchar said. "So it's easy to recover."
The Penguins have had two days since Game 1, and can only hope that has been enough time for Malkin to recover from his showing in the opener. He skated sluggishly, overhandled the puck, failed to record a shot on goal and went 2-16 on faceoffs.
"He didn't have his best game, and he wasn't doing the type of things you have to do at this time of year," assistant coach Mike Yeo said. "But neither was anybody else."
It remains to be seen if coach Michel Therrien will try to jump-start Malkin's game by doing something radical, such as taking him from between Malone and Mark Recchi and reuniting him with Sidney Crosby. That's a move Senators coach Bryan Murray joked that "I'm not going to encourage."
The Penguins, it should be noted, are grateful just to have the option of using those two together because Therrien believes a suspect hit by Ottawa's Christoph Schubert early in the second period could have damaged Malkin's left knee and ended his season.
"That could have been a big-time injury," Therrien said. "He could have been out of the series."
Ottawa appeared to make a point of hitting Malkin at every opportunity during Game 1, although defenseman Andrej Mezsaros insisted yesterday that Malkin was not singled out because "we want to hit everybody."
The statistics back that up -- Ottawa was credited with 36 hits in the opener -- although the Penguins expect the Senators to put a particular bull's-eye on impact players such as Malkin.
"They're going to target our top guys, and we're going to target their top guys," Yeo said. "If we have a chance to bang Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, we want to do the same thing.
"Obviously, that's something they're going to try to target, and they're going to see how he responds to it. It's up to him to prove he can play in those types of games. People won't target him as much if he comes back and plays a strong game."
Therrien appears to be expecting nothing less today.
"He'll be fine," Therrien said. "Those types of players always find a way to get success."
There's not much dispute about that. The question is whether Malkin can do it in time to have a positive impact on this series.Gonchar, for one, believes he can. And will.
"It's just a matter of him adjusting," Gonchar said. "When you're young and you have a lot of expectations, it's probably not that easy. But, at the same time, I think he's capable of it."