Crunch time in Malkin?s marathon
By Joe Starkey
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Nobody on the Ottawa Senators hit Evgeni Malkin like the wall he ran into about two months ago.
Every rookie hits one, some harder than others.
The Penguins' gifted Russian forward -- their second-best player -- has two goals in his past 15 games and four in his past 25. He has no points in three of his past four games and did not register a shot in the Penguins' 6-3 loss to Ottawa on Wednesday, despite logging nearly eight minutes of power-play time.
Heck, he didn't even register a missed shot.
This is one of many problems the Penguins must fix going into Game 2 today at Scotiabank Place.
Something tells me we're going to see a much different team, even if that's just a gut feeling based on observing the club's spirited, high-tempo practice Friday.
A day earlier, the Penguins still seemed stunned. Yesterday, they were downright giddy, grinding away for an hour in preparation for Game 2.
Besides, this team has offered too much evidence of its heart and talent to make anyone believe it will bomb again.
Not that coach Michel Therrien should stand pat. He used his Game 1 line combinations in practice each of the past two days, but that means nothing. You better believe there'll be some changes.
This is a guy who changed lines like socks all season. Do you think he's going to stick with the same units after such a horrifying playoff loss?
"We're going to do some adjustments, no doubt," Therrien said. "You can't be stubborn."
He wouldn't elaborate on possible changes in strategy or lines, of course, which is just as well. If he's going to switch his line combinations, it's better to do it in-game and force Senators coach Bryan Murray to respond on the fly.
It's possible nothing will help Malkin, just as nothing can help a novice marathon runner whose legs have turned to linguini at mile 17. Malkin has logged only two more games (79) than he did all of last season in Russia, but the rugged North American game is an entirely different animal, especially now that the Senators have zeroed in on Malkin the way a home-run hitter zeroes in on a belt-high fastball.
Malkin's inability to speak English makes things harder, because there are so few people who can help talk him through his difficulties.
"He actually understands (English) better than people realize," said assistant coach Mike Yeo. "But communication's still a problem."
The good news is that the 20-year-old Malkin had some serious spring in his step at practice the past two days and has a recent history of rising to the challenge in high-stakes competition.
Therrien's best bet is to get Malkin away from Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi and put him back with long-time linemate Jordan Staal, or, better yet, with Sidney Crosby.
Among the advantages of a Crosby-Malkin pairing:
? It splits the bull's eye on each man's back, giving each half of one, and divides the attention of the Senators' suffocating defense tandem of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov.
? It gives Crosby a dangerous (if dormant) goal scorer on his wing and pits him with the only player on the team who thinks the game the same.
? It gives Malkin a set-up man and gets him out of the faceoff circle, where he suffered third-degree burns the other night, losing 16 of 18 draws.
? It allows Erik Christensen to move up from the fourth line.
If nothing works, Therrien cannot afford to wait for Malkin to recapture his magic. Malkin has one power-play goal in the past 15 games. Christensen or Michel Ouellet should get a shot on the first power play if Malkin can't cut it as the trigger-man.
Patience can be a vice in a playoff series.