Not much has gone wrong for the Pittsburgh Penguins this year. Sure, the club is dealing with some significant injuries but, outside of a recent three game skid, those setbacks haven’t hampered the Pens to this point. In fact, as the first month of the season drew to a close, the Penguins completed a perfect week in which they both exorcised a few playoff demons created at the hands of the Bruins and swept a home-and-home series against Columbus.
Now, as we charge into the month of November, Pittsburgh finds itself perched firmly atop the surprisingly pedestrian Metropolitan Division thanks in large part to Sidney Crosby’s dominance, Marc-Andre Fleury’s solid play in net and a renewed commitment to team defense.
But all is not perfect in Western Pennsylvania. No, recent rumblings suggest that Evgeni Malkin isn’t producing at a level expected of a former-MVP and scoring champion. And, to an extent, maybe there’s something to that. After all, contributing 13 points in 15 games would be impressive for most individuals but netting just three goals (none in the last eight contests) will get some people talking when you’re bringing home $8.7 million.
But should the “slow” start really cause concern?
Evgeni Malkin, the Slow Starter
Historically, Malkin has typically been a slow starter, particularly when it comes to goal production. You actually have to go back to Geno’s second year in the league to find an October in which he tallied more than four goals. Given that, by season’s end, Evgeni usually finds himself among the NHL’s elite goal and point producers (when he’s healthy), it’s only logical to think the superstar is a virtual lock to find the back of the net more frequently as the Penguins march further into the season.
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As the table above illustrates, Malkin does indeed typically contribute in greater numbers as the season moves along. In fact, only one full NHL campaign has witnessed 71 fail to improve on his early season goals scored per game. What’s more, that lone drop in production occurred during Geno’s rookie year in which the phenom potted a marker in each of his first six games. Pretty difficult to improve on a goal-per-game pace to start the year - particularly for a rookie.
Geno Takes Over
If the past few games are any indication, Malkin may find himself on the verge of breaking out. Because, while he manufactured “only” three assists in the last three contests, Evgeni has been a force on the ice as of late.
He may not have appeared, for example, in the scoring summary following the Boston game last week but that doesn’t change the fact that Geno was arguably the Pens’ best player against the Bruins:
“That was Evgeni’s best game of the year. He was dominant. He stripped pucks. Got great chances. Breakaways. Was great down low. Set up Jayson Megna and Jussi about four or five times. He was physical in the game as well. I thought he kept his cool as well. They came after him a couple times. He was real focused and played the game. I was looking for him to break through on one or two chances.” – Dan Bylsma, on Malkin’s performance against the Bruins last Wednesday
It was more of the same two nights later against the Blue Jackets. Malkin danced around would-be-defenders, daring anyone to take the puck off his stick before he created a chance for himself or a teammate. Simply put, Geno dominated all night. He was named the game’s first star after setting up a pair of markers and nearly ending his goal drought with a blast that somehow managed to elude the net after ringing off the crossbar and far post. Based on how everyone reacted, Evgeni appeared to be one of the few people in the arena who realized the puck never actually crossed the goal line:
No, Malkin isn’t off to a great start for someone of his stature and ability. But, as we discussed above, that’s not necessarily atypical for Geno. Hell, even during his Hart Trophy winning campaign, Malkin didn’t register the 13 points he has compiled this year until mid-November. Throw in the fact that James Neal isn’t currently available to flank his buddy and Evgeni’s numbers to this point honestly shouldn’t be that surprising.
So, before Pens’ fans and the hockey world start to think Malkin is in for a down year, just know that the goals and points will come. They almost always do. What’s important is that Geno is starting to dominate games again. And, if that continues, the rest will take care of itself.