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As Sidney Crosby gets evaluated for upper-body injury, the spotlight again shines on Evgeni Malkin

By Mike DeFabo

NEW YORK — Back in November 2019, the fire alarm blared inside the visiting locker room at New Jersey’s Prudential Center, a fitting metaphor for the state of panic that permeated throughout the Penguins fanbase that day.

Just hours earlier, Pittsburgh announced that captain Sidney Crosby would miss six weeks due to core muscle surgery. As the anxiety inducing sound grew into a crescendo, there was Evgeni Malkin with quick wit and a smile.

“I will be fire,” he joked.

And he was.

Sans Crosby, Malkin tallied 38 points in 26 games (11 goals, 27 assists). Not only did he help keep the train rolling with Crosby out, Malkin was the diesel-guzzling engine powering those wheels into overdrive, helping the Penguins surge ahead in the standings with the best December in the NHL.

Now, the alarm is once again sounding.

The hit Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba threw in the direction of the face of the NHL knocked Crosby out of the Penguins’ Game 5 loss at Madison Square Garden in the second period. Asked after the game if he believed there was any intent behind it, coach Mike Sullivan answered, “Did you see the hit? You probably have the same opinion I do.”

Sullivan had no additional information during his media availability Thursday morning other than to say the captain will be evaluated in Pittsburgh for an upper-body injury.

But based on the comments and the mood of the room late Wednesday after the game, one senses the club is bracing for the real possibility it could be without Crosby for Game 6 in Pittsburgh on Friday.

Losing Crosby — a player who was named the Penguins team MVP and voted by NHL players as the league’s “most complete player” — is obviously significant. He appeared to almost single-handedly will the Penguins to the second round, driving play himself and making every skater on the ice with him better.

Across all series, only two players had racked up more points than Crosby’s nine. The ripple effect was one of the reasons his linemate Jake Guentzel is now tied with Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov with a playoff-high seven goals in just five games.

Looking beyond that, missing the captain could be especially costly for the Penguins the way they’re currently constructed.

When the Penguins slumped the last month of the season, they sometimes looked like a one-line team. If the top line and the power play weren’t scoring then no one was. General manager Ron Hextall acknowledged it was a concern by adding Rickard Rakell at the trade deadline and explaining, "We felt like our secondary scoring has been a little bit of an issue.”

Even as recently as this series, one of the biggest questions after Game 2 was the ability to produce offense when Crosby wasn’t on the ice. At that point, the only regulation goals were scored by top-line players: Guentzel (three goals), Crosby (one) and Bryan Rust (one).

“We have plenty of leaders on this team that have been through a lot,” Guentzel said. “You never want to see a player like that leave, but we've got the group to step up.”

At the top of the list of leaders who need to step up? Malkin.

On numerous instances, Malkin has found a way to elevate his game in the absence of the captain. According to the Penguins unofficial historian Bob Grove, Malkin has produced 1.13 points per game in the 833 contests with Crosby. In the 148 games without him? He’s racked up 1.34 points per game.

The playoff sample size is much smaller, but similar. In two games without Crosby, Malkin has produced 1.50 points per game compared to 1.01 with the captain.

One of the best, and most recent, examples came back in that 2019-20 “fire” season. The key for Malkin was that not only was he a consistent, point-producing force, but also his play away from the puck was so good that Sullivan constantly praised him for it.

The dominant performance emanated through Malkin’s wingers. Rust racked up 14 goals and 19 assists in 33 games.

And Guentzel played like Jake Guentzel on pace for a 40-goal season until he collided with the boards. To that point, he had racked up 12 goals and 17 assists in 21 games alongside Malkin.

“Geno is a superstar player,” Guentzel said. “When you get a chance to play with those guys, it's a unique opportunity. We've played together in the past. He's a guy that likes the puck on his stick and he's just another unreal passer. For me, just trying to find open spots and get him the puck as much as possible.”

All told, that trio scored 37 goals together in 26 games without Crosby back in 2019. The challenge for the Penguins is that this is not 2019.

Malkin, 35, is two years and one significant knee injury older. While his power play wizardry has been evident on numerous instances, even Sullivan admitted on April 22 that the star center’s 5-on-5 play had been “sporadic,” while noting his best games came alongside Rust.

Now more than ever, the Penguins need Malkin to hoist this team on his shoulders and carry a top line — not just with points on the stat sheet but, just as importantly, with disciplined defensive play and smart decisions that keep him out of the penalty box.

“Geno, he's important guy for us,” Sullivan said. “That combination of Sid and Geno, they're two of the best in the league for 15-plus years. When one of them is out, the other one steps up. That's been my experience since I've been here.

“And depending on what happens moving forward, I'm sure Geno will bring his best.”

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