The last time I photographed Evgeni Malkin playing hockey more meaningful than a practice, he played a dang good game. Then he got hurt.
The next time Malkin suited up, 10 days later in Philadelphia, he got himself suspended.
Malkin didn't score a goal in either of those games, but he tallied three assists and amassed 17 penalty minutes between them. The effort and fire, particularly shown in his bout the Lightning's Steven Stamkos, was a promising sign that's been missing since Malkin's torrid start to the season.
Since Dec. 1, 2018, though, the generational scorer had only found his name in the goal column five times.
Things changed today in the Penguins' 5-4 loss to the Flames. But, for most of the game, Malkin didn't show signs of that upward trend he exhibited in those wins against the Lightning and the Flyers.
For 40 minutes, he was closer to setting up Flames goals with offensive zone turnovers and errant neutral zone passes than snapping his goal-scoring drought. Then something clicked.
The Penguins, in the third period, finally showed signs of playoff-like desperation -- the kind needed for this team to find themselves in a playoff position. They were physical. They were fast. They looked like they knew they had a chance to overcome the 5-2 hole they were in.
Malkin scored. Then he was inspired.
That photo just above is of Malkin leaping horizontally to follow the puck on his deke of Austin Czarnik. He beat Czarnik, gained the zone, drew a slash from Sam Bennett and the Penguins were on the power play.
That's when I sent out an addition for the Live File: "Evgeni Malkin is fired up. Jumping around guys with some urgency last shift. Draws one. There’s a chance here with 5:30 remaining."
Almost instantaneously, I was able to add another: "Just sayin’. Blasts a dude and blasts a puck. 71 wants this."
Malkin very literally blasted Mark Jankowski:
And then very literally blasted a puck past Mike Smith in one-timed fashion:
Talk about creating your own space on the ice. And, it happened as quickly as I described. This is how Malkin's hit and second goal showed up in the NHL play-by-play ... a mere five seconds apart and 11 seconds after he drew the penalty:
The Penguins and Malkin came a goal short from the miraculous, but they were inspired in scoring the two goals in the attempt. Whether that carries into Sunday remains to be seen.
Malkin wasn't the only Penguin trying to make a comeback statement against the Flames. Justin Schultz made his return after being out since Oct. 13, 2018 and did so with a smile.
It didn't take long for him to get into the action, either. On his first shift, Schultz was fed a pass into the slot as he attacked away from the puck. He wound up a wrister, suspense thickened as the crowd realized who had the puck, and fired it to a groaned release as it didn't find the back of the net.
Like Malkin, but with a drastically more dramatic build-up, Schultz made his mark on his return to action. At the tail end of a disappointing power play, Schultz gained control of the puck and fired a shot at the top right corner, just over Smith's shoulder.
Jake Guentzel reached out, redirected the puck and celebrated in front of the net.
Schultz wore a giant smile and drifted toward the collective hug waiting to embrace him for the first time in a long time. I stayed on the defenseman after he shot, hoping his most recent shot would score, prompting a big celebration.
It didn't, and I missed Guentzel's goal because of it, but the smile above was a solid return on investment.
As always, the rest of the game's best photos can be seen below:
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
To continue reading, log into your account: