Evgeni Malkin and James Neal: Back Together and Taking Names by @MadChad412 - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal: Back Together and Taking Names by @MadChad412

Guess who's back, back again. James Neal and Evgeni Malkin are back, tell a friend. The dynamic duo is back together and they're kicking ass and taking names, so to speak. 

The polarizing Malkin, who was being criticized and even crucified by fans and much of the local media (myself included) has taken that criticism and made everyone eat crow. Malkin just capped off an amazing month of November with 24 points. Malkin has 21 assists, which is the most in a single calendar month since Wayne Gretzky had 21 in January of 1996. 

Malkin, who has 7 goals on the season, had been struggling for his lofty standards before this latest surge. In the month of October, Malkin had just 10 points in 13 games. There was also that 15-game span in which Malkin failed to score a goal. 

The thing I admire about Malkin is that he's a self aware player. He acknowledged the slump and the criticism and took it on the chin. He acted professionally. You can witness that firsthand by reading this great piece on this very subject from a few weeks ago by Dejan Kovacevic

My favorite quote by Malkin in that article:
“I'm happy, of course, when the team wins and when I can make a pass to Gibby for a goal,”

Just awesome. A lot other players around the league would have shied away from criticism, see Claude Giroux. 

Goal scoring aside, you have to understand that assists are just as good as goals. Malkin leads the league in assists and is on pace for 82 this year. Even when Malkin wasn't scoring, he was playing terrific hockey and setting up teammates for easy goals. For example, see the goal that Brian Gibbons scored against the Anaheim Ducks.

One reason for Malkin's production being down in the first month of the season was without his usual linemate James Neal. Neal is an All-Star and 40+ goal-scoring winger that has developed chemistry that at times is unmatched. Add in the fact that the salary cap has prevented the Pittsburgh Penguins from having the quality depth at forward that it has enjoyed over the years and you get a underproductive Malkin. 

Since the return of Neal to the lineup, the Pens' offense has improved drastically, especially that of Malkin. Malkin has 21 points in 12 games since Neal has returned to the lineup. The power-play has also had a big jump due to Neal's return. For the season, the power-play is 20.6% with Neal out of the lineup and 32.4% with him in the lineup.

Malkin, who refers to Neal as "Lazy" even gave my pal Josh Yohe, who is the Pens' beat-reporter at the Trib, some great quotes about Neal. Josh said that Malkin has given Neal most of the credit for his improved productivity. Malkin said “Good thing for Nealer. When he came back, I knew I'd play a little bit better.” You can read the rest of Josh's story here. 

Malkin's productivity is night and day better with Neal in the lineup. Malkin has 22 points in the 13 games that Neal has played in this year. Malkin only has 13 points in the 15 games that Neal missed due to an injury. Remember all of those people that wanted Malkin to have a winger? Well Neal has been and is one of the best wingers you can have in terms of generating offense. 

Remember, in 2011-2012, Crosby missed most of the season, and the line combination of Malkin-Neal-Chris Kunitz was the best in the league. Malkin won the Art Ross with 109 points, and Neal finished tied for 7th with 82 points. Neal put in 40 goals and Malkin scored 50. We didn't get to see an encore of that last year because both Neal and Malkin missed significant time with injuries.

If you think about it, both Malkin and Sidney Crosby have "their winger" right now. As good as Malkin and Neal have been, Crosby and Kunitz have been ridiculous so far this season and last. Kunitz currently ranks 5th in goals with 14 and 11th in points with 27 points. If Kunitz can keep this pace up, it would give him two straight seasons finishing in the top ten in goals and top 11 in total points.

It's scary to think what kind of numbers the Pens can put up if and when Pascal Dupuis gets out of his current slump. Dupuis finished with 20 goals in the shortened season last year, good enough to finish in the top-15 goal scorers. That, along with solid two-way hockey and great hustle earned Dupuis a new contract with the Pens. However, Dupuis is struggling to score this year with just three goals on the season. Dupuis has just one goal in his last 22 games played. Yikes.

However, the rest of the top-six is thriving and more importantly, the two-headed monster of Malkin and Crosby is truly back, as both are currently ranked first and second in the NHL in points. With Neal back and playing the way he is, it wouldn't shock me if Malkin ends up winning a third career scoring title. Not sure what the haters will say then.

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