By Michael Farber, SI.com
Evgeni Malkin obviously has hit a wall. The only question is whether the Pittsburgh Penguins dynamic center, who has a measly assist in the past three games of the Eastern Conference final, has crashed into the same wall of fatigue that derailed him so violently in the playoffs last season or the picket fence that the Philadelphia Flyers prepared for him.
Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien gently scoffed at the notion that Malkin is bushed, considering that the Penguins have played a mere 13 games in the five or so weeks since the start of the playoffs, a testament to their efficiency, talent, robust health and, yes, the softness of the conference. Unlike last spring when the rookie was a cipher in the first-round series against Ottawa after the longest year of his career physically and psychologically -- he did manage to arouse himself, Lazarus-like, a week or so later in the world championships in Moscow -- exhaustion hardly seems a plausible excuse for his recent rough patch.
If fatigue is out, rule the Flyers back in.
Consider Pittsburgh's first power play in their 4-2 loss in Game 4 in Philadelphia when the Flyers lined up four across the blue line as the Penguins tried to gain the offensive zone. You always can try to stickhandle through the traffic. You can, of course, also stick a knife in a plugged-in toaster. The only safe, reasonable play is to flip the puck over the defenders and win it back the along the end boards, something a team should be able to do most of the time when it is playing five-on-four. But since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, those delicate dump-ins haven't been Pittsburgh's style. (Those Penguins would have tried to stickhandle against a conga-line.)
Malkin inherited some of the same skill and the same hubris from his Pittsburgh forebears, falling into the trap that the Flyers set for him. Even the spectacular Russian, who kept turning the puck over, can't dangle his way through that much rush-hour traffic.
Malkin is also being hit more often and insistently than he was during the regular season. He's the designated whipping boy for the aggressive Flyers. In Game 2, he seemed to shy away from taking a check and rushed a flat pass across the middle of the ice that Mike Richards, arch-nemesis of Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, turned into a short-handed goal. While Crosby seems to thrive in the give-and-take jousting and facewashes -- he will win multiple Hart Trophies in his career but not one Lady Byng -- Malkin doesn't come with the same thick veneer.
Of course, the Flyers' also targeted the only player taken ahead of Malkin in the 2004 draft and neutralized Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin for part of their first-round series. The difference is that Ovechkin eventually roared back, bursting loose from the Philadelphia shackles in a riveting series that went to a Game 7 overtime. Malkin needs that kind of bold performance in Game 5 on Sunday.
Therrien probably should have played an inspired Jordan Staal rather than Malkin with Crosby and Marian Hossa late in Game 4 after the Penguins had sliced the Flyers' lead to a goal, but it is hard to argue for suddenly benching one of the playoffs leading scorers and ditching an end-game stratagem that the coach has been using for two seasons. For Therrien, whose team is a game away from playing for the Cup, this is still business as usual.
"They're doing a good job right now to contain him," Therrien said in a conference call on Friday. "It's going to be up to Evgeni Malkin to make sure he's going to be productive offensively."