The Pittsburgh Penguins have been in a heated fight for first place in the Metropolitan, but one upgrade has pushed them above and beyond.
In mid-December, the Penguins finally got star center Evgeni Malkin back from injury.
Malkin had a lengthy knee surgery in early June, leaving him out of the majority of Pittsburgh’s offseason activites. After beginning the season on the injured reserve, many were unsure when Malkin would return to the ice.
Despite these beliefs, Malkin managed to make his return to the ice sooner than anticipated. Malkin took the ice on January 11th for Pittsburgh’s road contest versus the Anaheim Ducks.
Malkin did not miss a beat.
In the 60 minutes of regulation time, Malkin racked two goals and an assist, making him the most productive player on the offensive unit that unit. The Penguins won that game 4-1.
Here’s why Evgeni Malkin’s return has been some impactful for the Penguins
While Malkin has remained one of the core pieces of the Penguins franchise, this year has meant more than years past. By a long shot.
First and foremost, the Penguins are beginning to develop their young core to takeover when Crosby and Malkin retire. When Malkin returned, along with Sidney Crosby, it elevated the play of their linesmen. Players such as Jake Guentzel and Kasperi Kapanen have been able to play consistently with Malkin’s cushion.
The Penguins play as a whole has also been hot since Malkin’s return to the lineup. Including his season debut against the Ducks, the Penguins have gone 8-5, and now hold the first place spot in the Metropolitan over the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Metropolitan is by far the most competitive division in hockey right now, with four teams claiming 60 points or more on the season. The Penguins lead with 68 points, making them fourth overall in the NHL.
Evgeni Malkin’s play has also been exceptional in 2022. In the 13 games he’s appeared in thus far, he has five goals with eight assists, making it 13 total points on the season. Three of Malkin’s goals have also been on the power play.
Where Malkin makes his impact is the little details. For example, he’s won over 43 percent of his face-offs thus far. He’s also taken 33 total shots on goal, already almost half of what he accomplished in the 2020-2021 season.
These little things have helped the Penguins climb the Metropolitan mountain and keep the pedal to the floor. Obviously there is still plenty of hockey left to be played, and Pittsburgh has to keep fending off the red hot Hurricanes and New York Rangers. If the Capitals can regain some health, there could be a big question mark on the Metropolitan title.
As for now, the Penguins have the lead, and it’s thanks to the strong play of post-surgery Evgeni Malkin. Based on the pace he is playing at now, there’s a near certainty that he’ll be making this impact for long.