By Jason Mackey
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Worried whether Evgeni Malkin has bought into Penguins coach Mike Johnston's system that asks plenty out of his centers?
“I've started thinking more about my defense,” Malkin told the Tribune-Review after practice Thursday at Rogers Arena. “In the playoffs last year, they were all tight games. Sometimes one goal is the difference, so I've started to focus more on defense.”
Malkin's adjusted mindset hasn't hindered his offense. He is tied with new linemate Phil Kessel for the team lead in goals with four and leading with 10 points.
Malkin and three other players in the NHL have three game-winning goals. Nobody has more.
“It certainly looks like he's enjoying the game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I've watched him a lot in practice. He's having fun, which I like to see. He's getting key points.”
Malkin's game has evolved to the point of carrying a sub-2.00 goals-against per 60 minutes mark for the first time in his career. At even strength, his GA60 is 1.90. Meanwhile, his takeaways are up about 20 percent from last season's pace, and his giveaway rate has decreased by nearly 68 percent.
Not that it's helping Malkin sleep better at night.
“I'm never happy with my game,” Malkin said. “I always think I can play better. Some games are better, some games are not. I've tried to do my best job to help the team, but I know I can play better.”
The 48 seconds per game Malkin averages on the penalty kill are 18 more than he averaged the past six years combined. He's being deployed in more shorthanded situations, similar to how he was used during his career-high, 113-point season in 2008-09, when he averaged 1:04 of shorthanded time per game.
The extra work isn't easy, and it has required some extra attention, but Malkin's not about to complain.
“I'm still learning,” Malkin said. “I've not played on the PK for the last eight years. It's new for me. I like it. It should help for the playoffs. In tight games, you need to focus on the defensive zone first. I think it's helped me.”
There's a reason for all this, Malkin said.
Ask him to play defense, drive the Zamboni or shoot with a shovel, and he'd likely do it if it meant another deep playoff run.
“I miss it,” Malkin said of advancing several rounds in the postseason. “That was a long time ago. I think a lot about the Finals or the Stanley Cup. Those are good memories. I want them back.”
If Malkin and the Penguins are able to get those back, it potentially could mean Kessel riding shotgun with Malkin — one of the league's most dangerous shooters with one of its best playmakers.
Kessel seems to hold a special affinity for Malkin. Ask him about Malkin, and he begins shaking his shoulders, as if to emulate the gallop Malkin gets when he's skating with confidence and about to take over a game.
“You watch him, he's really shifty,” Kessel said, still trying to get the impression down. “There aren't many guys that big who can skate, pass and shoot like him in the league. You watch him out there. … I don't know what it is. There's something about him that's special.”
Again, Malkin has a reason for skating like this, using his body this way and creating the illusion that he almost is swooping from side to side.
“If you use your speed, it's tough to stop,” Malkin said. “We try to play a fast game, control the puck and use our speed. It's hard for defensemen because they can't stop it. So I use my body. I'm a tall guy, a little bit heavier. When I use my speed, defensemen can't stop it.”
Eric Fehr has a similar build — he's listed at 6-foot-4, an inch taller than Malkin — but still has marveled at watching Malkin when he's full of confidence, carrying the team for early stretches while Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and David Perron overcame early-season funks.
“He definitely has the ability to take over games,” Fehr said. “He has great instincts for the game. When he's on, it feels like he can carry the whole team, that's for sure.”
Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.
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