SAN JOSE — It was Sunday morning at Pittsburgh practice, and Evgeni Malkin was looking frustrated.
The Penguins’ superstar was pointless in the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, and now he couldn’t even make a pass during a 2-on-1 drill. Then he double-clutched on a shot. Then he nearly outright flubbed one.
A couple of times, he halfheartedly swiped the ice with his stick. He shook his head. A lot. At one point near the end of the session, he skated slowly with his head down for a few, long seconds.
Afterwards, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said mostly encouraging things, like Malkin had “been a big part of this playoff success,” and stuff like that.
“But certainly I know that there’s another level that he has to help us win,” Sullivan added.
It wasn’t the most aggressive example of a coach calling out one of his players. Perhaps it wasn’t even that at all.
Whatever it was, Malkin got to that other level in Game 4, and now the Penguins can win the Stanley Cup on Thursday.
It started in the first period, when he collected a stretch pass just outside the Sharks’ blue line. Instead of turning and dumping it in, he used his big frame to protect the puck, holding onto it until he found a streaking Phil Kessel with a perfect feed. Kessel raced in and shot. Martin Jones made the save, but the rebound went to Ian Cole, and it was 1-0 Pittsburgh.
“Yeah, great play,” said Kessel. “You watch him there, he slid it through the guy. I came down, kind of got a little hooked, and I was fortunate to get it on net.”
The next period, Malkin made it 2-0 off a sweet Kessel pass on the power play.
“I think G’s playing good all the time,” said Kessel. “He always creates stuff out there. He always has the puck. He makes players better. Obviously, when he gets something done, it’s big for us.”
“He demands a lot of himself,” said forward Matt Cullen, “so to see him come out like that in a big game when he kind of called himself out a bit, it’s pretty impressive. That’s what good players do.”
Malkin said he didn’t change much about his game. He wanted to play a bit more with the puck, that’s about it. And he didn’t take too much credit for scoring.
“My goal is like, Phil give me empty net,” he said.
But whether he’d admit it or not, it can be tough for superstars when they’re not producing and everyone’s wondering what’s wrong. For players like Malkin, there’s a fine line between trying to make plays and forcing things that aren’t there.
“He’s such an instinctive player, when he plays the game the right way and he doesn’t force things, he sees the plays that he needs to make,” Sullivan said.
“When he plays that way, he’s so hard to defend. It seems like the puck follows him around. I just thought he had one of his strongest games of the playoffs at an important time for us.”