Evgeni Malkin is back.
He will play Monday against Tampa Bay after missing four games with a concussion.
The Penguins need him back mentally, too – at least, if they want to entertain serious aspiration to win the Stanley Cup.
Painfully clear over the first half of the truncated NHL season has been this reality: The Penguins, now more than at any point over the last seven seasons, need Malkin and fellow former MVP center Sidney Crosby to be the best two players in hockey if they are to stack up against Chicago, Anaheim or Boston.
Heck, the Penguins need that if they are to stack up against New Jersey or a Philadelphia – in a seven-game series, anyway.
Malkin was a “Russian bully” last season, stalking points and hunting goals. With Crosby out of the lineup, he carried the Penguins – and some linemates – to an elite level of play.
He – and Crosby, who by then had returned – was only good in Round 1 against the Flyers.
The Penguins lost that series in six games.
Goaltending was blamed. Team defense was blamed. Lack of scoring depth was blamed. Irresponsible play was blamed.
Perhaps Malkin and Crosby deserved less blame than those aspects, but there is a simple truth to the way the Penguins are constructed.
They are paying Malkin and Crosby a combined $17.4 million against the salary cap, over 25 percent.
A good way to look at that is both of those guys have to win one series – if not by themselves, then by performing at such a level that they push the Penguins over the top. Malkin did that against Carolina in the 2009 East final. Crosby did the same the series before against Washington.
By no coincidence the Penguins have not won more than one playoff series – just one, actually – since 2009.
This is not a deep club. This is not club that will defend well in its own zone.
It is a gathering of puck-movers on defense, of smaller wingers with skill and grit (but, to belabor a point, very little size), and it is a club that is very top-heavy in terms of talent at forward and defense.
It is a club that will require an MVP-like run by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to make up for own-zone shortcomings.
Mostly, though, it is a club that needs Malkin and Crosby to be what everybody – this beat reporter included – has said about them so often in the past.
The Best Players in the World.
Crosby, despite beginning Monday as the NHL points leader, can get to another level. He has said so.
Malkin can go up a few levels.
Half a season is left, for the most part. It is time to see Malkin give opponents the headaches he did last season.
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Rob Rossi covers the Penguins and NHL for Trib Total Media and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He is ClearChannel’s Penguins Insider. Follow him on Twitter: @RobRossi_Trib.