Pens Weekend Wrap: Staal & Letang Impress, Malkin Line Dominating

You can’t stop Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin leads the NHL with 69 points despite having played the fewest games (49) of the league's top-35 scorers (Flickr/FrenchKheldar)

The Penguins’ top center has been the league’s best player or something quite like it for most of the season, and he put another notch in that belt Sunday by wrapping a seven-point weekend with two goals against Tampa Bay. As the roster nears completion with the returns of players like Jordan Staal and Kris Letang and match-ups grow more favorable for the Pens, Malkin has only become more impossible to defend.

The same goes for his linemates, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

After an up-and-down first week of the post-ASG stretch, the Penguins have won two straight games in decidedly offensive fashion. A look at the weekend that was:

Top Line Running the Show

After a 17-point weekend, Pittsburgh’s top line of Kunitz-Malkin-Neal is now undoubtedly among the best in the NHL.

The line goes as Malkin goes and Geno earned the NHL’s Second Star of the Week for his 3G, 5A performance in games against Montreal, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay. Malkin turned in his third five-point game of the season against Winnipeg Saturday, the sixth of his career, and notched two more goals against Tampa Bay Sunday night.

The Penguins Team Website nicely summed up the pace at which Malkin is blitzkrieging the rest of the league:

In the midst of perhaps his best NHL season, Malkin currently leads the Penguins in goals (32), assists (37), points (69), rating (+11) and game-winning goals (7). His 32 goals rank second in the NHL behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos (37 goals). At his current pace, Malkin would establish a career high with 49 goals.

Much of Malkin’s improved play this season is the product of better health and renewed focus, but having the best linemates of his career certainly isn’t hurting.

The trio has combined for 164 points this season.

Neal and Kunitz have soared while playing with Malkin, as Malkin’s production has (not coincidentally) soared while playing with a genuine sniper and a relentless forechecker.

Neal has already matched or bettered career highs with 29 goals, 55 points and 235 shots on goal, while Malkin is on pace for 49 goals and a second Art Ross Trophy.

Kunitz, meanwhile, has benefitted greatly from moving to the Malkin line. While starting the season as Jordan Staal’s left winger (Steve Sullivan started on the Neal-Malkin unit), Kunitz has exploded in the new role. Malkin has 36 points in 25 games with Kunitz, compared to 26 points in 22 games with Sullivan.

Neal, too, has a better PPG average when playing with Kunitz. ThePensBlog provided the first look at the line combination breakdowns, a post that’s well worth the read for anyone considering breaking up the line once Sidney Crosby returns.

Letang and Staal Impress

Since Jordan Staal returned from a knee injury, the Penguins have averaged six goals per game and have the best winning percentage in the NHL over that span.

Granted, wins against Winnipeg and Tampa Bay don’t mean much.

Staal has been a force nonetheless. He tallied a goal and assist in his first game back, though there weren’t many Penguins who didn’t score two points in the 8-5 win over the Jets. While he was on the ice for both of Tampa’s goals last night (minus-2 on the night), his otherwise strong play was an example of how the plus-minus stat can be misleading.

Staal has centered Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis on the second line and has seen time on the second power play unit. The result is that his impact means more to the final score than the box score. The new Staal line has been excellent at cycling the puck and creating scoring chances, making this weekend the first time the Pens have had reliable secondary offense in quite some time.

Letang has been back in the lineup since before the All-Star break (he missed more than 20 games due to a concussion suffered in November) and the weekend’s matchups were kind to him, too.

The Pens’ top blue-liner tallied three goals (on five shots) and three assists in the last two games, as well as a plus-five rating and Sunday’s game-winning marker. The late All-Star addition is fifth on the team in scoring with 29 points (8G, 21A) despite having missed 23 games with injury, including 10 points in 11 games since returning January 19 against the Rangers.

League-wide, he’s tied for the best PPG average among defensemen with Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson at .88 PPG and if not for injury would likely still be in the Norris Trophy conversation.

Making Hay at Home

Malkin’s current 8-game home scoring streak is the second-longest in Penguins history and tied league-wide for the longest of the season with linemate James Neal.

Mario Lemieux holds the franchise record with an 11-game streak from January 5-February 23, 1996, while Malkin and Neal have the franchise’s second-longest streaks at 8 games apiece (Neal scored in each of the Pens’ first eight home games this year).

The Neal and Malkin streaks mark the second time in NHL history two teammates have had home-goal scoring streaks of at least eight games in the same season. The last time was in 1970-71, when Boston’s Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge had streaks of 13 and 8 games, respectively (Elias Sports Bureau).

Marian Gaborik (2009), Alex Ovechkin (2008-09) and Simon Gagne (2005) are the only other players to have streaks of at least 8 games since the lockout (S/T to Jason Seidling of Pittsburgh Penguins for the stats).

Other Notes

– Dan Bylsma broke up the defense pairings after surrendering two quick goals to Tampa Bay Sunday night. The Paul Martin-Zbynek Michalek pairing, which has been nothing if not an abject disappointment this year, was finally separated and created new groups of Martin-Engelland and Michalek-Niskanen. The move apparently paid off, as the Penguins surrendered no goals following Steve Downie’s first-period pair. Bylsma has said the revised pairings could be used again.

– Brent Johnson got his first win since December Sunday night, making 21 saves on 23 shots. It was his second strong performance in as many starts following a 1-0 loss to Toronto February 1, improving his record to 3-6-2 on the season. His goals against average and save percentage remain problematic at 3.00 and .887, respectively, but two good starts in a row at least ease the talk that the Pens might need to shop for a backup before the trade deadline.

– Pittsburgh’s power play is 6-for-18 in six February games (33.3 percent) and now ranks fifth in the NHL at 19.7 percent. The unit hasn’t finished in the top-20 of the league in three seasons and was an ugly culprit in last year’s first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay (1-for-33). The unit went just 4-for-28 (14 percent) in the eight games Sidney Crosby has played this season and 4-for-30 (13.3 percent) in the seven games Malkin missed at the beginning of the year. Like so much else on the team, the power play unit runs through Malkin (and a second unit featuring Crosby as the right-circle catalyst might be just as effective. Just sayin’.)

– The penalty killing unit hasn’t allowed a goal this month (14 kills) and has gone 41-for-46 (89 percent) since January. Overall, their 88 percent effectiveness is third in the league this season, despite finishing first overall last year at 86.1 percent. Only Montreal and New Jersey have better kills this season at 89.7 and 88.4 percent, respectively.

– Defenseman Simon Despres was activated off injured reserve Monday and practiced with the team, though it was confirmed he has been re-assigned to Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the AHL.