Are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's Slow Playoff Starts Officially Over?

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIApril 30, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, left, Evgeni Malkin, center, of Russia, and Matt Niskanen celebrate Malkin's goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the first period of Game 6 of a first-round NHL playoff hockey series Monday, April 28, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

With great power comes great responsibility.

Everyone's favorite Webhead learned this lesson the hard way. When you're among the most talented and highly paid players in the NHL, cold streaks are no longer a luxury. You're expected to have an impact on the outcome of games, especially during the postseason, when the contests are more important and pressure is high.

Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby both have power. Neither can sling webs from their wrists, but their All-World talent gives way to a lot of responsibility. If they don't score and produce, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a decidedly average hockey team.

James Neal and Jussi Jokinen are both great players, but the Penguins aren't going to make it to the Stanley Cup Final without No. 87 and 17 producing at a high clip. Not surprisingly, when Malkin went nine straight games without a goal in the postseason, pundits started to flip on him.

Then "Geno" did what all great players do. He found the on-switch and fired a hat trick home during an elimination game on the road against a feisty Columbus Blue Jackets club. Game 6 looked like a cakewalk by the time the final horn sounded, but the outcome could have been different had Crosby and Malkin not done their jobs.

Anything can happen in a Game 7.

During the first five contests of the series, Malkin struggled to find enough time and space to create many Grade-A chances. Then head coach Dan Bylsma put his top two stars on the first line and the results were devastating to Columbus.

Shadowing Crosby on one line and Malkin on another is one thing. You can over-commit in those situations and live to play another period. When you pay too much attention to the captain and he has Malkin to pass to though?

This is what happens:

Crosby might not have scored the goal, but he made it happen with his strength and vision. Before he rifles the cross-ice pass to Malkin, three Blue Jackets have turned their attention to No. 87. That left just enough space for "Geno" to break his goalless drought.

The Penguins have been encouraging Malkin to shoot more and the results are evident. James Neal spoke to gathered media on April 27, where Shelly Anderson and Seth Rorabaugh of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted the forward, who had apparently been urging his former typical linemate to take more shots:

We've definitely told him to shoot a little more. I know I have... He definitely needs to be a little more selfish and shoot the puck. He's a pass-first guy -- and a great passer, at that -- but sometimes when you're not scoring or getting those chances, you need to focus on getting it to the net. He definitely did a better job of that [Saturday]. He still made great plays, but if you want to score, you've got to shoot the puck.

Neal's comments came just one day before Malkin broke out of his slump.

The Russian Olympian isn't streaky in a traditional sense. His goals and points tend to come in bunches, though, and he rode out several ridiculous scoring streaks during the regular season.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Malkin was looking like one of the best players in the world in Game 6, and that's a mode that he tends to get stuck in for a while. That bodes well for the Penguins as they await their second-round opponent.

While Crosby still hasn't found the back of the net, he's been productive enough to earn some wiggle room. He picked up six assists in six games against the Blue Jackets and is one point away from cracking the NHL's top-10 postseason scorers.

For a competitive guy like "Sid," failing to score for an entire month is tough. He hasn't celebrated a tally since March 30, but he still seems to be in good spirits. Prior to Game 6, Crosby spoke to members of the media about his mindset, and Terry Koshan of The Toronto Sun captured these comments:

If you see me in the room, hopefully you haven’t been able to tell whether I had three goals or none. Your attitude can’t change... I know that you can’t put all the emphasis on scoring because — I don’t think it’s an arrogant thing to say — there have been times when I have scored a lot and I don’t think I have been as happy with my game either. I don’t think scoring always tells the story. The thing you always look at as a player is the chances and what you are able to create.

To that effect, Crosby has been one of Pittsburgh's most outstanding players. According to, he's one of the postseason's best at driving play to and in the offensive zone. His 61.3% Corsi-for percentage is fifth-best in the league and it's clear that the Penguins are producing more offensive chances with Crosby than without him.

Like he said, "scoring doesn't always tell the story." Despite sarcastic chops on the Twitterverse and the looming specter of goallessness, Crosby was excellent through the first round.

With Malkin's three-goal outbreak and Crosby's continued strength with the puck, it's safe to say that their respective struggles are in the rear-view mirror as round two approaches.