by: Rob Rossi, TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - Evgeni Malkin expects to play for the Penguins on Wednesday night.
His regular winger, James Neal, expects something like this from Malkin:
“Put the puck in early,” Neal said. “Chip it. Don't even try to deke a defenseman.
“If you see No. 71 put the puck behind the defense early, that's going to open things up for him to use his speed later on -- and then, just look out.”
The Penguins open the Stanley Cup playoffs with Game 1 of a best-of-seven series against Columbus at Consol Energy Center.
They will do it at full health after losing an NHL-worst 532 man-games to injury during the regular season.
Malkin missed the final 11 games because of a hairline fracture to a bone in his right foot. He participated in a full practice Tuesday and centered a second line with Neal and Jussi Jokinen as his wingers.
Malkin said he felt “no pain” immediately after the session. He needed to meet with Penguins physicians to gain clearance to play in Game 1.
Malkin appeared at ease on and off the ice Tuesday. His skating stride was fluid, and he handled turns and stops without signs of discomfort. He even took a friendly jab at Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a fellow Russian.
“He stays in the net,” Malkin said, smiling. “All Russian goalies do.”
Malkin said he likes how the Penguins match up with Columbus. He cited the clubs' similar systems and structure, hinting that the Penguins' familiarity could lead to a sense of calmness he feels they lacked in two previous opening-round series against Philadelphia and the New York Islanders.
Malkin said the disappointment of Russia's failure to medal in men's hockey at Sochi Olympics is “gone,” and that he feels “excited to try (and) win (the) Stanley Cup again.”
The Penguins are best built to do that if Malkin and fellow franchise center Sidney Crosby dominate the postseason as they did during the 2009 Cup run. Then, Malkin and Crosby became the only two NHL players to record more than 30 points in a postseason since the Colorado's Joe Sakic in 1996.
Crosby usually faces a club's best defensemen and defensive forwards, and Malkin said it is up to his line to force a change in opposition strategy.
“It's always good (defense) against Sid; he has to work hard for chances,” Malkin said. “We need to control with the puck (and) make (the) other team play (their) best defensive guys against our line.”
Coach Dan Bylsma said that actually has happened “a lot, including last postseason.” However, Bylsma said the 2009 East final provided the most obvious example of Malkin forcing an opponent to shift its defensive priorities away from Crosby's top line.
Malkin opened that series against Carolina with six goals in Games 1-3. The Penguins swept into the Cup Final.
Malkin and Crosby finished first and third in points-per-game during the 2008-09 regular season. They then owned the playoffs.
Malkin (1.20) was second only to Crosby (1.30) in points-per-game this past season. Crosby played in 80 games and finished with an NHL-best 104 points. Malkin played in only 60, and his 72 points were 15th.
Neal said there is another level Malkin can reach and added, “we need him to if we want to win the Cup.”
That level was reached several times from mid-November to the Olympic break in early February. Malkin produced 15 goals and 42 points in 29 games despite twice recovering from injuries.
Neal said players and coaches — from both teams — should know if Malkin is at that level in Game 1. Their reputable chemistry is easy to see, Neal said.
“Look at our puck management on the rush, if there are no turnovers and we're making the right plays at the blue line,” Neal said. “Are we playing with speed? Are we putting pucks on net?
“If that's what it looks like, then Geno is feeling it, and everything starts with that.”
(Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.)