Published: Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, 10:42 p.m.
The timing couldn't have been much worse.
There was Evgeni Malkin late Monday night at Consol Energy Center, well after the Penguins' 3-1 dunking of the Ducks, still visibly dissatisfied with himself. Even though he'd just been the strongest performer on either side. Even though he'd just made a Magellan-like voyage around the entire Anaheim franchise to set up Brian Gibbons' winning redirect.
And there, waiting for Malkin to wrap up his postgame workout, was a small delegation from Russia's Olympic team. Chief among them was Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, soon to be the national coach in Sochi and once a national-team defenseman in the old Soviet era of Viktor Tikhonov and Red Army dominance.
Remember that style of play?
Remember how the puck would ping-pong systematically from Igor Larionov to Sergei Makarov to Slava Fetisov to Alexei Kasatonov and, only after poor Team Poland had been dissected and demoralized, Vladimir Krutov would finish with a tap-in and a shrug?
By the final horn …
“Those guys would get maybe 10 shots the whole game,” Malkin was telling me through a small grin after the meeting. “They would never shoot until for sure it would be a goal.”
Yeah, well, here's hoping Bilyaletdinov and friends offered nothing more than pleasantries. Because if there's one thing the Penguins' dormant superstar doesn't need right now, it's advice on the merits of passing up a shot.
You know the numbers: Malkin has three goals in 21 games, none in his past 14 games for the longest such slump of his career. There's no question he's still done good things, not least of which are the 17 assists that rank fourth in the NHL. But it remains beyond reason, beyond justification that a scorer of this caliber could go more than a month without so much as a cheesy empty-netter.
He knows it, too.
“I'm happy, of course, when the team wins and when I can make a pass to Gibby for a goal,” Malkin continued in our talk. “But I know I have to score. I know I have to shoot more.”
“Sometimes, like in this game, I see Kuny or Nealer and want to pass to them because they're open,” he said, referring to Chris Kunitz and James Neal, “but I know I have good chances to shoot the puck.”
Right down the high slot, too, I interjected. Twice on Monday between the Ducks' hash marks, countless times over the season.
“Yes, I know. And I know I have to shoot.”
At least that much appears to be clear.
So is this: Malkin isn't lacking in goals because he's lazy or he's lost a step or he isn't as strong or he's suddenly shy about playing in traffic or he's somehow lowered his skill level or any other silly supposition someone might make.
He simply isn't shooting.
Don't overthink it.
His 56 shots are tied for 54th in the league and rank third on his own team behind Sidney Crosby's 76 and Kunitz's 70. This despite heavy power-play duty. This despite Crosby drawing the opponent's checking units. This despite 21 shifts per game.
I'll save you the math: Malkin is averaging one shot for every eight times he goes over the boards.
The sharpest perspective can be found, I think, by looking back at Malkin's MVP season in 2011-12, when he gunned his way to 50 goals: He registered a league-leading 339 shots and finished fifth with 117 missed shots. Including the shots that were blocked, he averaged an incredible 6.63 attempted shots per game.
The current figure: 3.95.
I reminded Malkin that he was the one most vocally imploring Jarome Iginla last spring to shoot more, often yelling, “Shoot, Iggy! Shoot!”
“I know,” Malkin replied. “Now it's me.”
Or maybe a teammate needs to do the same for him now.
Maybe the captain.
“I think it's kind of obvious for anyone that when you're not scoring, you have to shoot more, go to the net more, maybe be a little more selfish,” Crosby said. He recently shed a slump of his own, of course. “I'm sure Geno's aware of that. He doesn't lack confidence. He just likes to look for the open guy. His goals will come.”
Sooner rather than later, Malkin promised as we parted ways Monday.
“I'm going to shoot. You'll see,” he said. “Next game, score.”
That would be Wednesday night in Washington.
Here's guessing he'll react with more than a shrug.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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