Deep down, it’s probably easier for an observer to explain why you love your favorite things than it is for you to do so. It’s a lot like the standard sitcom will-they-or-won’t-they romantic angle; everyone else sees the patterns while one or both of the characters remain oblivious.
I don’t know exactly why I love sports, particularly hockey, because I’ve loved them for as long as I remember.
All the explanations that make sense seem like they’re hindsight-based. When I was a child rooting for Charlie Ward and the Florida State Seminoles, was I doing it for the sake of escapism or was it because they had cool helmets and an exciting offense? It was probably all about the uniforms.
Really, one big factor that makes it rewarding to treat trivial matters with such rapt attention is the simplicity and fairness of the scoreboard.
Sure, there are seemingly unfair elements. The Yankees and Red Sox have all the money. Referees sometimes favor star players in big markets. Rinse, repeat.
Those grievances aside, following sports feels a lot more digestible than staying up to date on “real life.” Unfortunately, the same blame-focused news cycle taints both the vital and the blessedly trivial.
This is a wordy preamble for this column’s larger point: there’s nothing wrong with Evgeni Malkin. It’s us, not him.
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NO MERE ASSISTANT
Plenty of ink (digital and otherwise) has been spilled hand-wringing over Malkin’s goal-scoring “woes,” but even before Monday’s impressive yet goalless turn on national television, it all seemed really silly to me.
It’s easy to dismiss the importance of assists, as there’s the implication of passivity (passivity even includes the word pass in it, for goodness sakes). Still, a seasoned hockey fan will tell you that there are many plays when the assist man did almost all the work. There’s a reason, after all, that Luc Robitaille reportedly once said that a “fire hydrant could score 40 goals playing with Mario Lemieux.”
Last night, Malkin was Mario and Brian Gibbons was that lucky fire hydrant. Watching Geno’s primary assist on that goal - Gibbons’ first career tally, which took a whole lot of media attention away from the guy who basically gobbled it up and regurgitated it to him - shows the power of the assist.
CONTEXT, AGAIN, IS KEY
Look, I’m not saying it’s wrong to be disappointed in Malkin in a smaller way. He’s golden in the big picture, though.
This guy is a first-round pick who puts up boffo numbers, and not just in the most obvious goal and assist ways. He's one of those sneaky PIM guys both for his penchant to occasionally fly off the handle and to take the bad offensive zone penalty here and there (he's just under a PIM per game in his career, with 478 in 479 games). But the most exciting thing that happened in 2011-12 was that he went from a pretty good volume shooter to a sheer menace; he had 339 SOG in 75 games, good for 4.5 per night.
While the PIMs are there (16 in 21 games), the SOG aren't (56 in 21, 2.67 per contest).
A REAL RAW DEAL
That's disappointing, but cut Malkin some slack and remember a key factor: James Neal hasn't been healthy this season. Because of that, his most common linemates have been (wait for it) Chuck Kobasew and Jussi Jokinen so far this season, according to Left Wing Lock’s numbers.
Now, those combos are pretty scattered - Jokinen’s been able to ride shotgun with Geno quite a bit, though - but the point is that Malkin’s doing just fine. The fact that he has almost a point per game (20 in 21) should be solid if not impressive, considering the circumstances.
Would it be ideal if he scored more goals and fired more SOG? Sure, but to act like a superstar playing more like “just a star” in some kind of crisis is to be beyond silly.
Then again, the Penguins bring the silly out in people. Malkin isn’t even the most baffling guy on the team perception-wise; Marc-Andre Fleury takes that mantle, as he’s often been overrated by the mainstream media and over-hated by stats people in weirdly equal quantities.
Sure, it’s fun to paint these really broad brushstrokes about certain players not being motivated, losing interest or any number of factors. The bottom line is that most of the time, guys like Malkin are doing just fine. Instead, it’s the team around them that is providing more or less help. With Neal rounding back into form, I expect things to keep getting better, too.
In other words, Malkin’s critics can shut up … unless you’re just mumbling a bit about a lack of SOG. Then I’d like to present you with a sweaty hug, because I get it.
Anyway, let’s pivot to game summaries:
PITTSBURGH 3, ANAHEIM 1
-- Boy, this was a weird one. The Ducks out-shot the Penguins 12-3 in the first period, then Pittsburgh flipped it 12-5, with neither team scoring in 40 minutes. Then all four of the goals were scored in a little more than four minutes. How can we really "learn" anything from that?
-- One thing I do know is that the Ducks must be glad this four-game road trip is over, as they went 0-3-1 against seemingly lowly East teams. People make a lot of noise about overachieving teams like the Maple Leafs and Avalanche hitting the wall, but Anaheim drew that type of criticism last season; could regression be hitting them, too?
-- If comparing him to a fire hydrant didn’t make things clear enough, no, I don’t think Gibbons is a guy you should grab right now. Always fun to root for an undersized forward, though.
-- Viktor Fasth hasn't looked all that great since coming back from injury issues. And really hasn't been that great this season, either, with a 2-2-1 record (.885 save percentage and 2.95 GAA). It seems like the Ducks are going to part ways with Jonas Hiller, but maybe it's Fasth the guy who should be out, contract concerns aside.
BOSTON 4, CAROLINA 1
-- Reilly Smith scored a goal and an assist, giving him 13 points in 20 games this season. The 22-year-old isn't really getting the kind of opportunities that scream "boon" - he's on the third line, more or less, with Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly. He's only getting 13:41 time on ice per night. He's worth watching in the future, but I wouldn't bite just yet. If nothing else, he softens the blow of losing Tyler Seguin. A bit.
-- Speaking of Seguin, the former Robin to his Batman keeps struggling. Brad Marchand was at least temporarily bumped down to the fourth line. At least let's hope it's temporary. Either way, things aren't going well for Marchand.
-- Speaking of Seguin again, Loui Eriksson has been looking nice lately. The Swede has a six-game point streak (two goals, five assists) going. While I still think he's a weak peripheral guy - barely over two shots per game, just two hits, one blocked shot and maybe least forgivably, just one PPP - he’s still a solid depth forward. And, OK, he’s subtly impressive game makes him easy to like.
-- Cam Ward finally returned on Monday, stopping 26 out of 29 shots. The 29-year-old hadn't played since Oct. 24. With Anton Khudobin on the shelf for a troubling amount of time, Ward should have a secure place as the workhorse again, although it must be said that Justin Peters was sneaky-competent at times during Ward's absence.
-- It's also great to see Tuomo Ruutu score his first goal of 2013-14. I doubt he'll approach his peak power forward form any time soon, but hey, at least he might be able to save his NHL career.
CALGARY 5, WINNIPEG 4 (SO)
-- There's something oddly fitting about Michael Cammalleri being owned in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues. I can't really blame people from allowing him to slip under the radar, as he's playing on a bad team and isn't putting up eye-popping numbers. Instead, he's just putting up some awfully nice ones; nine goals, 13 points in 14 games played show that sometimes you should look at averages, not just totals. Nothing wrong with 36 SOG, either. If I'm a contending team, I'd sniff around for what it would cost to nab the largely unappreciated sniper.
-- From largely unappreciated to the large and appreciated, Dustin Byfuglien is red-hot right now. He now has four goals (and five points) in his last three games. Overall, he has 17 points in 23, with tantalizing peripherals (34 PIM, 78 SOG, even 41 hits and 40 blocked shots). Incredibly, he's still often listed as a forward in some formats. While that was more of a revelation when he was actually a forward - it felt like cheating to put him as a defenseman - it's still a nice wrinkle. "Buffy the Hamburger Slayer" is a guy I always try to land in fantasy, even if that same one-of-a-kind body can betray him with injuries and blown defensive assignments.
-- I can understand Mr. Calamari hanging around the waiver wire, but Jiri Hudler's dismissal is a little weird. He has 21 points in 21 games, so why is he only owned in 62 percent of leagues?
-- Sean Monahan's heating up lately, with three points in his last four games. I still think he's more in a developmental stage - it's often sexier to get a promising rookie instead of a more productive, less exciting veteran - but the future could be bright.
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