(Pittsburgh, PA)—Evgeni Malkin covered his face with his glove seconds after entering the penalty box in the third period of last night's throbbing game two of his team's playoff series against the Washington Capitals.
Malkin's ill-advised tripping penalty gave Alexander Ovechkin the time and space to bomb a slap shot past a helpless Marc-Andre Fleury and untie the contest for good. Malkin knew at that moment his contribution to a night when teammate Sidney Crosby tried to beat the Capitals all by himself was less than zero.
What league stats tell us about Malkin's post season and what our eyes see are two different things. Malkin is fifth in the league in playoff scoring with four goals, seven assists, and eleven points.
What that line doesn't tell you is that Malkin has now gone five games without a goal and now two-and-a-half games without a great scoring chance. The guy who might be the league's regular season MVP has become the team's Minimally Visible Player.
While Ovechkin and Crosby have upped the ante in their personal game of king of the hill to a purely sick level, Malkin has become an afterthought in the first two games of this evenly matched series; this could spell the ultimate difference.
The Capitals lug a two games to none lead in the series back to Mellon Arena but have held the lead for less than half a total period. One goal out of number 71 could have turned either game in the visitors favor.
Malkin was a force through the Pens first two playoff series last year and was torturing the Flyers before a big hit in game two of the Conference Finals left him with a rib injury, limiting his mobility through the rest of the chase for the Cup. He gave the Flyers fits in the first round again this season, but there is nothing to point at this time to explain the power failure.
Sure, Petr Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko haven't done a thing to make Malkin's life easier, but neither have Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz lit up the scoreboard in Sidney Crosby's behalf. Sometimes great players just have to grab a situation and shake something out of it. Ovechkin has done it for Washington. Crosby has done it for the Penguins. Can Malkin find it within himself to do the same?
As the series heads back to the oldest barn in the NHL for games three and four, there are questions to be answered for sure. Can a rookie goaltender continue to hold up under an increasing workload? Can Ovechkin continue to wield his illegal stick against better defensive match ups he'll see on the road?
But the greatest of these questions lies with Malkin. The answer to it might well determine who is still playing hockey on Memorial Day weekend.