At the end of the second period of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Nashville Predators on April 10, Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin and Predators defenceman Mark Borowiecki got into a tussle, with both players repeatedly shoving each other. Malkin retaliated by slashing Borowiecki’s stick from his hands and cross-checking him in the face, which the NHL Department of Player Safety picked up. The head of the department, George Parros, subsequently handed Malkin a four-game suspension along with a $190,000 fine.
This is only the second time in his entire career that Malkin has been suspended. The suspension is a two-fold issue for the Penguins; not only are they missing one of their best players, but the problems they finally solved at the deadline have cropped up again. However, in Malkin’s absence, the Penguins have done a remarkable job holding down the fort.
Penguins’ Second Line Thrown Into Disarray Once Again
The Penguins’ second forward line has been a topic of conversation all season long. Before the 2022 Trade Deadline, coach Mike Sullivan and general manager Ron Hextall were perplexed with how to handle the second line. Penguins management struggled to find solutions to Kasperi Kapanen’s scoring woes and kept slotting in different forwards before they found a permanent replacement in Rickard Rakell. Jason Zucker’s return from injury further complicated matters, as the Penguins suddenly needed to find a place for him once again.
Just as things seemingly fell into place for that line, Malkin was suspended, temporarily raising the metaphorical anchor and forcing Sullivan to experiment again. As of April 12, the second line consisted of centre Jeff Carter, Zucker, and Rakell. Malkin’s absence created a ripple effect resulting in holes further down in the lineup as well. Carter takes Malkin’s spot, Teddy Blueger takes Carter’s spot, and Brian Boyle moves from the wing to the fourth-line centre position.
Penguins Offered A Chance to Examine Other Combinations
Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has stated that Malkin’s suspension is the perfect time to further experiment with where certain players fit in the lineup, noting that the partial combination of Rakell and captain Sidney Crosby paid immediate dividends in the game versus the Predators. The two forwards were only on the ice together for a total of 2:07, but in that short time, we were able to decide the outcome of the game. Each of the Penguins’ three goals were scored in the time that Crosby and Rakell were on the ice. Rakell and defenceman Kris Letang provided the assists on the first goal, scored by Crosby. Rakell set up Crosby again for the winner in overtime (From “Tim Benz: Evgeni Malkin’s suspension gives Penguins time to experiment with Rickard Rakell on Sidney Crosby’s wing”, Tim Benz Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4/12/22).
Before the suspension, Malkin’s season totals of 17 goals and 20 assists were incredibly impressive considering the amount of time he missed with injury this season. He’s a big loss to the Penguins, but they have the structure to last.
Penguins Surviving Without Malkin Thus Far
When Malkin was suspended on April 11, the Penguins were in a comparatively precarious position. At the point of his suspension, they sat relatively comfortably in a playoff spot with 94 points, but the Washington Capitals were hot on their heels (and had two games in hand) (From “Evgeni Malkin suspended four games for cross-checking Predators’ Mark Borowiecki” Mike DeFabo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/12/22).
The two games that followed, a home-and-home with the New York Islanders, were critical to final seeding. The Penguins lost the first in a shootout but managed to gain ground with the point and the New York Rangers’ loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Crosby and Rakell again contributed mightily to the offence that night, with two assists each.
The next game at PPG Paints Arena went much better for the Penguins. In a 6-3 victory, Crosby and forward Jake Guentzel carried the Penguins to the playoffs for a 16th straight season, the longest current run in the league and the longest since the Detroit Red Wings’ streak of 25 consecutive seasons from 1990-91 to 2015-16. Although the Penguins lost one of their best at a critical juncture of the season, they’ve so far managed to adapt to Malkin’s absence and have continued a tradition of excellence going back more than a decade.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.