James Neal's Return and Evgeni Malkin's Resurgence Paying Dividends for Pittsburgh Penguins

By Jeff Ekiert
Evgeni Malkin, James Neal
Tom Szczerbowski- USA TODAY Sports

People were concerned for Evgeni Malkin once James Neal re-aggravated his injury in the season opener and was forced to sit out the entire month of October. The two players go together like Ryan Getzlaff and Corey Perry, Pavel Datsuk and Henrik Zetterberg, heck even Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. But over the last week and a half there has been no comparison for what these two have done.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are recently coming off a slump where they could not find an offensive rhythm. Now they have put together a streak of 18 goals over the last five games (3.6 GPG). Despite Sidney Crosby‘s dominance, the Penguins have gotten more than the offensive boost from their second line.

Malkin recently came off a 16-game scoreless drought when he tallied a goal in the team’s 4-3 win against the New York Islanders on November 22. It was the best thing that has happened for the Penguins to this juncture. Since that game he seems to be back to his old self resulting in Neal finding his groove as well.

Pittsburgh has always been known as one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL, making them a feared opponent around the league. Having two of the best players in the world is great, but when the two-headed monster is working individually on separate lines with the help of additional role players, that makes them much more dangerous.

As of late Malkin and Neal have been reunited with Jussi Jokinen playing on the left wing while others are sitting out with injuries. Instead of the injuries affecting the performance in the bottom six forwards, the re-merge of the current trio has made it safe to say that the Penguins have the best second line in hockey.

“That line has been generating a lot,” Crosby said. “I think [Malkin] got that monkey off his back now and he looks like he’s having a lot of fun out there.”

That could be an understatement in itself. Over the last five games, Malkin has generated ten points (3 G, 7 A) while Neal has 11 points (6 G, 5 A) totaling 21 points for the duo during that span.

“When you score, you have more confidence and now I feel so much better,” Malkin said. “My line — I think we play better every game and we have fun.”

Not only has the second line been magnificent over the last several games, but alongside Crosby, Chris Kunitz has been putting together quite the season thus far. He has 11 goals and 24 points — 15th in the NHL scoring race. He has a ways to go to catch his teammates with Crosby at the top with 33 points and Malkin right behind him with 30 (going into Friday).

The trio of Malkin, Neal and Jokinen is reminiscent to the team’s history of great second lines — Malkin, Neal and Kunitz; Marty Straka, Alex Kovalev and Robert Lang; Ron Francis, Joe Mullen and Shawn McEachern.

With Pittsburgh missing key components to their team right now like Beau Bennett, Chuck Kobasew and Tanner Glass, Bylsma is thanking the hockey gods considering his team is maintaining their lead in the Metropolitan Division.

Jeff Ekiert is the Pittsburgh Penguins/NHL beat writer for RantSports.com. Like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @jmekiert and add him to your Google account.

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