It’s amazing what a coach can do for a team by properly contouring the offensive game plan to his smorgasbord of available talent. Mike Sullivan fine-tuned the Penguins in the second half of the season and it has for the most part carried over into the 2016 playoffs. It also helps that Jim Rutherford has fabricated one of the truly deepest set of four lines in my memory.
Take a gander at the four lines rolled out by Sullivan in Game 3. Behold Evgeni Malkin centering a third line, even if he isn’t 100% Malkin, that’s still impressive.
When the Crosby-Malkin era started to make deep playoff runs by going to the Stanley Cup Finals in both 2008 and 2009, a disproportionate percentage of offense ran through these two players. In 2008, when they came up short in the Finals to the Red Wings, Crosby and Malkin combined for 16 of the team’s 61 goals (26.2%) and 49 of the team’s 169 points (29.0%). This edition was aided by the fact that Marian Hossa was a beast and helped relieve some of the burden from them with 12 goals-14 assists-26 points of his own.
For the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team, with Hossa departed to the opposition in Detroit, the Pens were virtually a two-man show with most of the offense funneled through these two players. That playoff run saw 29 of the team’s 79 goals (36.7%) generated by either 87 or 71. Additionally, 67 of the 210 team points (31.9%) went through the two centers.
But this year is different. After Game 4 of the Capitals series, Crosby and Malkin have been responsible for 6 of the team’s 32 goals (18.8%) and 18 of the team’s 88 points (20.5%). Contributions have come from likely sources (Phil Kessel’s 3G-5A-8P, Patric Hornqvist’s 5G-3A-8P) and unlikely sources (Nick Bonino’s 1G-8A-9P, Matt Cullen’s 3G-2A-5P). Six players have scored at least three goals through the team’s first nine playoff games. All of this is great on the surface, as the team has three true scoring lines and a fourth line of Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Rust that keeps teams plenty honest, as well. But at some point, the Penguins are probably going to need either (or both) Crosby or Malkin to go supernova white-hot and dominate a series.
Back in 2009, Crosby and Malkin took turns crushing all the life out of an opponent. Crosby started it against the Capitals with 8 goals-5 assists-13 points in the seven game series, then Malkin carried it forward against the Hurricanes in one of the most dominating series of Penguins playoff hockey with 6 goals-3 assists-9 points in the four game sweep of the Canes. The highlight was this jaw dropper of a goal:
The issue at hand, though, is I wonder if Malkin and Crosby are capable of dominating a series anymore. I would say this year Malkin is not, due to his lingering injury issues. Crosby, though, had an excellent final three months of the season with 44 points (19 G – 25 A) in 33 games. He’s been very good, but not great, in these playoffs. Against the Capitals so far, he’s been a non-entity with one point and a minus 3 in the first four games. That’s a far cry from his domination of the Capitals in 2009.
Is this what a mid-career 87 and 71 look like? Or is it just that the multitude of injuries that these two have suffered are finally catching up with them and a point-per-game is the best we can expect?
The game and style of play in the NHL has changed dramatically, even since 2009. Overall athleticism has increased on defense, but teams that are able to roll multiple scoring lines out are still outpacing the skill level of other teams’ 5th and 6th defensemen. The most important thing for the Penguins is that they keep marching on towards the Stanley Cup. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how many points Crosby or Malkin or anyone else get. The only thing that matters is hoisting that gorgeous silver chalice high above their heads at center ice.