Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin scores, then warns: ‘I’m not done as good player’

PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin had spent most of the previous three days trying to avoid everything and anything related to his own goal into an empty net Monday night. He stayed off Instagram because people were sending him videos of the embarrassing mishap. Coaches and teammates dared not bring it up.

Around an hour before the Pittsburgh Penguins faced the Florida Panthers on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena, Malkin sat at his dressing room stall and heard a smattering of laughter. He looked at a giant TV and knew he had to join in.

“TSN is showing my own goal,” Malkin said to The Athletic. “I like: ‘Why? Stop. No more video!’

“It was an accident, bad luck. I know this. But, like, I don’t score right now. I’m no confident. It’s been bad for me to see own goal.

“It’s been bad for me too long.”

The Penguins lost 3-2 in a shootout against the Panthers — not the result they needed given their dangerous position in the Eastern Conference standings. They will not have a postseason spot when the NHL breaks for its All-Star Game.

They’ll surely need better from Malkin to make up ground in the chase. His goal late in regulation Friday night — set up by a splendid keep by Erik Karlsson then a fantastic feed by Sidney Crosby — might jump-start Malkin’s re-emergence as a consistent offensive force.

“I hope,” Malkin said, after he spoke with other local reporters. “I know team needs me to score. My confidence bad. I get goal. Just a goal. But big for me. I need good feeling.”

Malkin had scored only one goal in his previous 10 games and merely eight in his previous 34. He’s still scored only nine goals in his last 35 games, which is one of the worst stretches in 18 seasons — and a 21-goal pace over 82 games.

Always emotional, and often to his detriment, Malkin conceded he has had a hard time “hiding” his anguish related to recent performances. He lamented a strong start to the season (eight goals and 17 points over the opening 14 games) as “wasted because, like, I’m not good for long time.”

“Too long,” Malkin said. “I want us to win, make playoffs. Team needs more. It’s my job — score, make points. I should. No excuse.”

Pausing as he continued to remove gear, Malkin seemed to wait for words he could himself believe. Upon coming upon them, his eyes widened, his posture stiffened and his voice dropped a few octaves.

“I know people say I’m not good player now,” he said. “For, like, maybe month or more, they are right. But I’m not done as good player. I know what is true.”

The Penguins are 9-3-2 when Malkin scores a goal.

That includes Friday night, when his magic in the final minute of regulation prevented what could have been a deflating concession of 2 points. Though the Panthers are one of the NHL’s perceived Stanley Cup contenders, the Penguins matched their physicality and tenacity, and they stood strong when Matthew Tkachuk tried to impose his will with hits — a few away from the play — and seemingly the entire Florida squad directed its ire at Kris Letang.

The five-on-five metrics favored the Panthers, who were plus-12 in scoring chances as charted by Natural Stat Trick. Also, the Penguins needed an extra skater; Jake Guentzel’s opening goal was on a power play, while Malkin’s was scored with the goalie pulled.

Coach Mike Sullivan astutely described the Penguins as landing a “hard-earned point.” Alex Nedeljkovic, who was 14 of 16 on high- to mid-danger shots, was responsible for keeping the Penguins within one shot, especially in a third period when he faced 11 shots and stopped each one.

And, there is no sugarcoating it: The Penguins went 1-for-8 on the power play, including when they were on the advantage for 7:06 of the final 12:55 in the second period.

Had the power play been simply OK-ish — say 2-for-8 — the Penguins might not have needed late heroics from Malkin to force overtime. On the eighth and final power play, Malkin and Karlsson were not out with the top unit despite coming out of a timeout.

“We understand we need to change something,” Malkin said, supporting Sullivan’s decision.

“Again, we should play better. We should help the team to win. (Friday night), we have so many power plays — five-on-three for, like, 20 seconds.

“It’s not great.”

The Penguins are 9-3-2 when scoring on the power play, a .714 points percentage. That sample size, though small, suggests general manager Kyle Dubas made the correct assessment the Penguins could win games with their power play.

The problem is they have failed to score a power-play goal in 68.9 percent of games, and they are 12-14-5 in those contests.

It’s become common in Pittsburgh for fans to call sports talk shows or use social media to vent frustration about a power play that is star-laden — Crosby and Malkin are former Hart Trophy and Art Ross winners, Karlsson has won the Norris Trophy three times, and Guentzel is on pace for his third consecutive season of at least 35 goals — but has clicked at a measly 13.3 percent on the season.

Malkin has averaged 2.20 power-play goals per 60 minutes since his debut. He’s scored 176 times on the power play.

He has three power-play goals this season.

Perhaps, when it comes to the Penguins pushing for a playoff spot, it’s as simple as the power play performing better by Malkin scoring more on it.

“We work every day in practice, and we work hard, and we score goals in practice,” Malkin said. “But when games start, we look at each other and — maybe, I don’t know — we (should) start shooting more and just play simple.

“We know they pressure so hard. We know we need to move puck quickly.

“Again, even ask coaches, we lost confidence. Right now, we’re not feeling like that. But, again, it’s one goal — and maybe it helps us (Saturday night).”

The Penguins play the Montreal Canadiens at home Saturday night. Malkin’s 21 goals against the Canadiens are tied for the most he’s scored against a non-divisional opponent.

One goal in one game is not enough to transform Malkin. Another goal the next night should at least allow him to head for the break feeling better.

“He loves to score goals, and when he scores it helps his confidence,” Sullivan said. “Nobody is harder on Geno than himself. He knows we rely on him to produce offense, and when he doesn’t, nobody feels it more than he does.

“It’s never from a lack of effort. He’s a hard-working guy, a real competitive guy. So, hopefully, that goal at the end (against the Panthers) … he’ll gain a bit of confidence from that.”

(Photo: Pamela Smith / Getty Images)

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