CHICAGO -- How bad?
Well, before I begin winding through the muck of maybe the Penguins' worst loss of the Mike Sullivan era, 6-3 to the NHL's most miserable team, the Blackhawks, on this Wednesday night at the United Center, let me first share the sentiment of at least one individual in the immediate aftermath:
If I printed the actual word here, much less in the headline atop this site, probably half our subscribers would cancel. So use the imagination, but don't overthink it. It was a single syllable. And, oh, my goodness, it was delivered with great gusto. Loud enough to be heard three rooms away through cement-block walls. Loud enough to make a photographer near me -- again, three rooms away -- leap as if he'd seen a ghost.
I don't know who it was. The scream was so primal I wouldn't have recognized it if it were my brother.
But being blunt, I'd like to think it was Evgeni Malkin:
That's 1:39 into the third period. The score was 3-3, this after Bryan Rust's breakout hat trick had rallied the Penguins back from a general malaise and into a mostly undeserved tie. But still, it was there to be had, to put it mildly. And not just because the Blackhawks entered as the NHL's rock-bottom team at 9-18-5, mired in eight straight losses and 19 losses in 22 games.
"Right. And they were in Winnipeg last night," as Matt Cullen duly reminded me. While the Penguins were spending a free day in Chicago, the Blackhawks were up in Canada getting beaten, 6-3, and beaten up by the bigger, badder Jets. They were a wounded animal on the highway waiting for the 18-wheeler to do its damage.
All that was needed was effort.
But what Malkin displayed up there wasn't just one of his common mental lapses that result in penalties. That's laziness. In the hockey culture, from the Mon Valley midgets to the Montreal Canadiens, there's nothing deemed lazier than using one's stick to do what one's feet should be doing. Malkin didn't feel like keeping pace with Brendan Perlini, so he placed his stick across Perlini's gloves, which in the modern NHL should be a hooking minor every time.
So, while Malkin goes to the box, the penalty-killers take to the ice and smoothly silence the league's worst power play, buying him a reprieve.
Here's what happened with his first strides of freedom:
None of this went perfectly, aside from Marcus Pettersson's part. He pursued the puck behind the net, got his stick on it, then, when possession was lost, he hurried back to the front. Jack Johnson didn't need to double the puck initially, but he recovered right away. And Sidney Crosby could have had more of a swiveling head to pick up Marcus Kruger before the goal.
But focus on Chicago's Andreas Martinsen in the left corner, and then on Malkin, fresh out of the box, approaching Martinsen ... then casually peeling away for no conceivable reason beyond more laziness:
I can't believe I'm about to type this but, if he were any other player, he'd be a healthy scratch when the Penguins resume play Friday night back in Pittsburgh against the Bruins. And as ridiculous as that sounds, replace his name in those sentences above with that of nearly anyone else on the roster, and try to dispute it.
Because it isn't just about these two sequences, or even this awful loss:
• Malkin's got one even-strength goal in the past 20 games. One. Read that again, and it still won't sink in.
• He's got seven even-strength points since the end of October. That's a goal and six assists over those same 20 games.
• He was minus-4 on this night, making him a team-worst minus-11 on the season. I'm not a fan of plus-minus unless it comes in bulk, and that's serious bulk.
• He's had a 50.44 Corsi For percentage at even-strength in those 20 games, barely above the bellwether 50 percent mark. For anyone unfamiliar with advanced statistics, it means he's on the ice for just as many chances for the Penguins as against. It's average. It's ordinary. It's what Derick Brassard and Derek Grant do.
• He registered four shots on this night, which is OK, but it's also the first time he's taken that many since Nov. 19 against the equally freewheeling Sabres. He totaled 20 shots in the 10 games in between.
It's not enough. It's not nearly enough.
Since Malkin was out of the locker room before it was opened to reporters -- and it was opened very quickly, I might add -- I asked Mike Sullivan about Malkin's penalty and his malaise of late, and the coach didn't exactly hold back:
Notice how he emphasized "Geno's line" rather than just Malkin?
That's fair on Sullivan's part. Because the whole line -- Malkin between Tanner Pearson and Phil Kessel -- was a dud, by far the Penguins' least effective here and on this whole 1-1-1 trip. And because the lack of reliable second and third lines has been the team's most throbbing headache through the first 30 games.
Sullivan acknowledged Wednesday morning considering line combinations that go against his own grain -- "We've talked as a staff about putting more of our top players together than spreading them thin," he said -- and then this is the price that gets paid.
What seems nuts is that Malkin and Kessel are tied for the team lead with 33 points each and yet, they've been anything but part of the solution, particularly when together. And now, or probably before the team charter touches down at Pittsburgh International, Sullivan's got almost no choice but to scrap that line and start over yet again.
That messes up everything, to hear these men tell it. I can't stress that enough.
I'm not about to suggest anything dire. Anyone who's ever bet against Malkin in the past has wound up looking really stupid before long. But it would be wonderful for all concerned if a lot of people started looking stupid sooner rather than later.
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