- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

Evgeni Malkin’s four-game stretch without a goal isn’t worrying the Pittsburgh Penguins, even considering his stuttering finish to last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

They’re expecting production from him in Monday’s Game 2 against the Washington Capitals to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“I feel good,” Malkin said after practice Sunday. “It’s OK.”

Maybe, but Malkin has fizzled in the playoffs before. Last season, he didn’t score a goal in eight of his last 10 playoff games, including five of six in the Stanley Cup Finals. That performance followed a 2007 first-round series against Ottawa in which he failed to tally in five games.

“We’re not worried,” captain Sidney Crosby said.

Malkin and fellow star center Crosby have combined for nine of the Penguins’ 20 goals this postseason, and Crosby has scored four in as many games. Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer during the regular season, has notched only two points during that stretch. He finished with a minus-1 rating Saturday in the Penguins’ Game 1 loss. He recorded an assist but had only two shots on net.

He vowed a different approach for Game 2.

“Maybe I need to play a little bit harder, maybe have more hits,” Malkin said. “Not change my game; it’s OK. Just more shots and play aggressive.”

That statement was intended as a thinly veiled reference to Malkin’s Russian rival, Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin. But Ovechkin did score on one of his nine shots - he attempted 17 - in Game 1.

Malkin has spent his hockey career in Ovechkin’s shadow - dating to their days as youth stars. Ovechkin was the only player selected before Malkin in the 2004 draft, and last season he bested Malkin for the scoring title and MVP award.

They are finalists for the Hart Trophy again, and Malkin steadfastly denied a suggestion that he succumbs to internal pressure in games involving Ovechkin.

“I focus every game, not just against Ovechkin,” he said.

Regular-season showdowns between the occasional enemies, though current buddies (according to Ovechkin), have not intimidated Malkin. He has six goals and 17 points in 12 contests, including two and five in four games this season.

Of course, the Caps are aware that writing off Malkin is not a wise move, no matter his recent playoff history.

“He’s the type of guy that if you don’t notice him for a couple of shifts, then he’ll go out and score a big goal, so you can’t [ever] be satisfied with keeping him off the scoresheet,” Caps right wing Matt Bradley said.

Malkin’s teammates share right wing Petr Sykora’s assessment that “he’s fine,” and Crosby was eager to downplay discussion of a third consecutive postseason flameout.

“He’s a great player,” Crosby said. “And he’s consistent.”

He’s also smiling, which Malkin’s former road roommate, Max Talbot, cited as a sign that this slump is not another spring swoon.

“You can tell when he’s not playing well,” Talbot said. “He’s not [acting discouraged] right now. I don’t think he’s not happy with the way he’s playing, and nobody in this room is. Somebody in the media just told me he hadn’t scored in four games; I didn’t even know.”

Malkin did, noting that he passed up available shots in Game 1.

“I’m not shooting, and that’s not good,” he said. “I know next game, if I have a couple of chances to score, I’m going to score.”

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