Penguins Need More Out of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang

If the first two games of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season are any indication, it could be a long one for the black and gold. After a 6-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on opening night, the Penguins battled their rivals again on Friday night, a 5-2 defeat. Although there were ugly moments in both games, there are some positives that the Penguins can build on.

The bottom-six forward group was a big question heading into the season, but the third and fourth lines were fast, hungry, and opportunistic. The speed line of Jared McCann, Mark Jankowski, and Brandon Tanev created many scoring chances, resulting in the trio scoring eight points in the two games. Forwards Sam Lafferty and Colton Sceviour add quickness to the fourth line, with Teddy Blueger anchoring the unit at center.

The Penguins also outshot the Flyers in both games, a 67-45 advantage. After falling into an early 3-0 hole on Friday, Pittsburgh carried the play for most of the game, which is a bright spot heading into a Sunday afternoon clash against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

If the Penguins want to find success this season, their stars are going to have to lead the way. Sidney Crosby has done his job so far, scoring two goals and winning 62.5% of his face-offs. However, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have had slow starts, which is cause for concern.

Malkin Is the X-Factor

For many years, Crosby and Malkin have dominated the middle of the ice. When one is out with injury, the other steps up in a major way. Two games into this season and Malkin has no points. At 34-years-old, the Russian superstar may need some time to get his legs into game shape, but with an 0-2 record in a shortened season, the Penguins need him to play at the all-star level that he is capable of.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown last March, Malkin was having a terrific season, scoring 25 goals and 74 points in 55 games. With Crosby and Jake Guentzel on the top line, along with the bottom-six contributing with goals of their own, Malkin’s play this season will be the X-factor that could put the Penguins’ offense over the top.

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Against the Flyers, Malkin suffered from bad puck decisions, careless penalties, and a lack of urgency, but it is only a matter of time before he finds his stride. He has only averaged less than a point per game in one season, and that was in 2010-11 when he scored 37 points in 43 games. Even with a slight drop off, the former MVP has the skills to be an offensive force, and the Penguins will rely on him.

Kris Letang Trying to Do Too Much

It’s brutally obvious when Letang is not playing at his best. Through two games, the Penguins’ star defenseman is a minus-5 with zero points. The Flyers scored five goals on Friday night, and he was on the ice for all five.

Head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff encourage their defensemen to jump into the play when the time is right, but Letang was all over the ice, taking risky chances that led to odd-man breaks the other way. Untimely penalties also factored into his poor start. On Friday night, he tried to dance through the Flyers’ defense on a 1-on-4 and took an offensive zone penalty in the process.

The 33-year-old is at his best when he lets the game come to him. He is one of the better defensemen in the league when he controls the play. With his smooth skating, his ability to find forwards on the breakout, and his physical presence in the defensive zone, Letang is crucial to the Penguins’ success.

Kris Letang Pittsburgh Penguins
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As the season rolls on, Malkin and Letang will continue to be leaned, as they have been for over a decade. The two stars have a history of falling into rough patches, but they always find their way out. However, in a condensed season like this, limiting bad stretches is a necessity for success.

The Penguins host the Capitals on Sunday, Jan. 17, when they try to avoid three straight losses to begin the 2020-21 season. Getting on the scoresheet and playing smart are the first steps for Malkin and Letang as they try to find their game.

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