Will sudden line changes rekindle Malkin's game?

Updated: May 25, 2008, 7:13 PM ET
ESPN.com

Evgeni MalkinBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesEvgeni Malkin has just one goal and an assist in his past five games.
Sunday's off-day question from Detroit: What's wrong with Evgeni Malkin? After a blistering start to the postseason, the Pens forward has one goal and two points in his past five games. Our experts weigh in.

Scott Burnside: Malkin must step up in Game 2

If there is a line between urgency and panic, the Pittsburgh Penguins are surely straddling it.

Down a game in the Stanley Cup finals against a powerful Detroit Red Wings team, the Penguins are in what amounts to a must-win situation heading into Game 2 on Monday night.

Melodramatic? Consider this: If the Penguins come up short again, they will be faced with winning four of five against the NHL's best team. Forget the Penguins' perfect home record in the playoffs; if they lose Monday, they'll be cooked.

So, coach Michel Therrien's wholesale changes to his line combinations are aimed at injecting some life into a group that managed just seven shots over the last two periods Saturday night and rekindling the productive fire under Russian center Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin, a Hart Trophy (regular-season MVP) candidate thanks to his scorching performance in the second half, has gone from dominating to ghostlike over the past five games.

Unless Malkin can revive his game, the chances of the Penguins defeating the Wings are muted at best. To that end, Therrien met with Malkin on Sunday to reinforce the Penguins' need for him to be a leader as he was when the team was without Sidney Crosby during the regular season.

"Just reminding him this morning that I want him to be a leader again," Therrien told reporters Sunday. "And we need him. He's a big part of our success. And I want him to be a leader. With a player like this, I believe you've got to be positive with him. He feeds from positive."

Juggling the lines ...

After the Red Wings shut out the Penguins 4-0 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien on Sunday revealed a new lineup for Monday's Game 2.

Included in the changes is the addition of veteran forward Gary Roberts (a healthy scratch for the opener), who will replace Georges Laraque.

Old lineup heading into Game 1:

  • Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis, Marian Hossa
  • Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone, Petr Sykora
  • Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Jarkko Ruutu
  • Max Talbot, Georges Laraque, Adam Hall (or Gary Roberts)

    New lineup heading into Game 2:

  • Sidney Crosby, Ryan Malone, Marian Hossa
  • Evgeni Malkin, Max Talbot, Petr Sykora
  • Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis
  • Adam Hall, Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu
  • Malkin has one goal, one assist and is minus-2 over the past five games. His inability to control the puck in front of his own net led to the Wings' second goal in Saturday's 4-0 loss.

    "First of all, we still have a lot of confidence in him. He's a world-class player," Therrien said. "He needs to stay focused. He needs to stay on top of his game. He needs to skate. He needs to battle. And if he's doing those things, good things can happen to him."

    Although he remains painfully reticent about talking to reporters, Malkin gamely answered questions Sunday after the Penguins' practice, admitting he hasn't played well recently.

    "A little bit tired," Malkin said. "It's OK. Tomorrow is quick, practice, feel OK. I'm OK."

    He said he didn't feel more pressure because Crosby's line is playing against the Red Wings' top line and their top defensive unit of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski.

    "I play next game better," Malkin said. "First game, I'm a little bit nervous. Next game, I play better."

    The plan is to have Malkin line up with Petr Sykora, with whom he has enjoyed great success this spring, and newcomer Max Talbot, a gritty forward with good speed who has toiled mostly on the fourth line but has contributed in key postseason moments with two goals and five assists.

    "I've played Maxie a couple of times," Malkin said. "He's played great; it feels good."

    The line changes come after Therrien has more or less left his forward units intact for the entire playoffs with the only changes coming as a result of injury. Therrien has also changed lines within games, but this is the first time this spring the units have been split between games. An act of desperation or a coach who understands the urgency of the situation?

    "It's only Game 1," Crosby said. "So, I don't think it's desperation."

    [+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin
    Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesEvgeni Malkin will play on a line with Petr Sykora and Max Talbot in Monday's Game 2.

    The changes will see Crosby and Marian Hossa play with Ryan Malone, who had been playing with Malkin. The theory is, Talbot and Malone playing on the top two lines will bring a little more sand in the offensive corners and in front of Detroit netminder Chris Osgood, who had an easy time of it after the first period in Game 1.

    Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's winger for most of his time since arriving from Atlanta at the trade deadline, will move to the third line with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.

    "If the coach thinks that's the way to do it and these combinations are going to be better against the Detroit Red Wings and we're going to win games, I'm all for it," Dupuis said.

    Another wrinkle to the Penguins' Game 2 lineup will be the appearance of veteran Gary Roberts, who will play with Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall on the fourth line.

    Although Therrien has been criticized in some quarters for his penchant for mixing up his lines when things don't go well, no one can accuse him now of fiddling while Rome burns.

    E.J. Hradek: Malkin's too wound up

    In my view, Evgeni Malkin is a little too wound up. I think he's trying to do too much. It dates back to the early part of the Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia. The Flyers, and now the Wings, did an excellent job of taking away his time and space on the ice. I think that has frustrated him.

    Obviously, Malkin is an exceptional talent. As a young player (he's 21), however, he's still learning to deal with the extreme focus that's placed on him in big games. This is a great learning experience for him. Penguins coach Michel Therrien is taking a positive approach with Malkin, and that's smart. If Malkin can relax and look to take advantage of situations when they present themselves as opposed to forcing the issue, he'll find his touch. Remember, this kid -- as good as he is -- remains a work in progress.

    Barry Melrose: Geno shouldn't think too much

    I liked the fact that Penguins coach Michel Therrien changed up his lines for Game 2. It sends a message of desperation to the team. If he didn't change up the lines, that would be telling the team the staff was happy with its effort in Game 1. It's a good move to change it up.

    I think Evgeni Malkin had a hard time skating and moving his feet in the opener; when he doesn't skate well, he's not as aggressive, he doesn't hit and he doesn't get after loose pucks as well. Standing still at the blue line during a power play is easy for a defense to pick up on.

    I think another problem for Malkin is he's thinking too much, and that doesn't necessarily mean it's nerves. I know this might sound silly to some people, but sometimes when you overthink a play, you don't react as well. Great athletes react, and Geno needs to try to do that more in Game 2.