The Pittsburgh Penguins had to begin the 2021-22 NHL season without two of their best players and sure-fire future Hall of Famers. After missing just about a month of the season, Sidney Crosby returned to the ice, but they still missed Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins and the fans would continue to wait a few more months before they were greeted with Malkin’s presence in the lineup.
While the impact of Malkin in the lineup was felt immediately, there have been questions and concerns surrounding his return. The Penguins have been successful without him; they don’t need him. Will he mess with the team’s chemistry? Does he still have what it takes to win?
Critics have been on Malkin’s case for years now, but he continues to show why he’s worth every dime and every second of ice time. No matter what anyone says, he’s a top player in Penguins franchise history. The concerns of his return to the lineup are baffling but important to address.
What Malkin Brings to the Lineup
The Penguins have found ways to score and win hockey games without Malkin in the lineup. Before he joined the team this season, the Penguins put up a 20-9-5 record and are quickly climbing back into the Metropolitan Division race. Guys like Evan Rodrigues and Danton Heinen have become local legends as they prove to be important pieces for the team.
Malkin, however, brings even more firepower to an already electric offense. One doesn’t score 1,100 career points by accident, and now is the perfect time to inject the Penguins with his presence. The Penguins have been fighting against COVID and injuries all season, which is likely to continue. At the worst, Malkin stepping back into the lineup fills a roster spot, but at best, greatly improves the team and their Stanley Cup hopes.
What team wouldn’t want to add a future Hall of Famer to their lineup? Malkin may be coming off a lengthy knee injury, but he was one of the best Penguins during the 2021 playoffs, even with a torn-up knee. Geno will be a force on the ice now that he’s fully healthy and rehabbed. That was pretty evident in his first game back.
If there was any doubt about Malkin’s return and concerns over his ability on the ice, those thoughts should have vanished on Tuesday night.
Malkin’s Immediate Impact
It took just one game for Malkin to reach three points on the season. Potting two goals and picking up an assist on a Jeff Carter empty-net goal helped cap off a stellar return. Looking into the details of the goals, you can see that he has already reached full speed in terms of gameplay. He’s already a threat and will be for the remainder of the season.
It was an early second-period power play that saw Malkin’s first goal. The Penguins’ power play has had its bouts with consistency all season, and adding a shoot-first mentality already improved the scoring threat. With a man advantage, Crosby, Rodrigues, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang should all feel positive effects from Malkin’s return to the top unit.
Malkin’s second goal is a credit to his hand-eye coordination and proving he has not lost a step in finding open ice. He found his way to the front of the net for a deflection on a shot-pass from John Marino that tips just over Anthony Stolarz. He had four shots on goal, and two of them went in. Don’t worry, he still knows how to shoot and score.
Malkin and Carter joined forces on the second line, and Malkin reclaimed his spot as the Penguins’ second-line center… sort of. He was listed as the center and played the position, but Carter took a majority of the draws. Malkin took three face-offs, winning one of them, while Carter saw 12 draws with nine wins. The dynamic of playing two centers on the same line is something the Penguins are very familiar with. Malkin playing with Carter is a piece of the puzzle that people may not have seen coming, but it works.
Does Malkin Worsen Team Chemistry?
In short, no. This topic has taken over Twitter for Penguins fans, but there is no reason to pay it any mind. Malkin is a heart and soul player for this franchise, and he can only improve the chemistry around him.
Some critics will look at the team’s success without Malkin and say they don’t need him to keep winning. That might be true, but adding him back to the roster only improves their chances and ability in each game. Geno scored twice in his first game back, but he also collected his 74th career game-winning goal. That ties Mario Lemieux for the franchise record in that stat, only four behind Jaromir Jagr.
Regardless of what Malkin does to the “chemistry” of the on-ice product, there is no doubting that he only helps the team win.
Malkin not only benefits the team as a whole with his return, but he will play an important hand in turning around Kasperi Kapanen’s season. Kapanen was pegged to be the Penguins’ breakout star of the 2021-22 season, but his performance has been pedestrian at best for most of the season.
Last season, Kapanen scored 30 points in 40 games, much of that success came with the help of Malkin. This year, without a consistent center, Kapanen has struggled, scoring 20 points through 34 games. Not awful numbers, but far below where his standards were heading into the year. Having a friendly face return at center should boost his numbers.
No matter what way you slice it, there are only good things coming from the return of Malkin. The Penguins get back a guy that played a huge part in bringing three Cups to Pittsburgh with aspirations for at least another. The chemistry is nothing to worry about when he will only help improve the play of those around him. And his impact in the lineup is already being felt.
The Penguins have been on the brink of hitting Cup contender status, and Malkin’s return only pushes them closer to the mountain top.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.