PITTSBURGH—Evgeni Malkin expects Phil Kessel to score in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final tonight, and anticipates his own “best game,” too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins likely will need both Malkin and Kessel at their best to wrestle back control of a series that's lately gone the Nashville Predators' way.
Nashville captured Games 3 and 4 in front of a raucous home crowd and did so, in part, by continuing to stifle the two-headed offensive monster that lines up behind Sidney Crosby.
“It's time,” Malkin said.
“It's a good time to show your best game because there's only three games left and [then] we have two, three months [of] summertime,” he noted.
Malkin, the leading scorer in the playoffs (26 points), went pointless with only two shots in the two defeats and has been suffocated—all series really—by the Preds' menacing duo of P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm.
The big Russian boasts an ugly 39 percent possession mark in the four games so far, with 5-on-5 scoring chances favouring Nashville 24-8.
Kessel hasn't scored since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, meanwhile, and has been held to just a single assist so far this series.
“I missed a couple shots that I probably don't want to miss,” the fully-bearded Wisconsinite said after practice yesterday morning.
“You want to bury them but sometimes they don't go in.”
Kessel has scored more goals on a per-game basis in the playoffs (0.43 for his career) than any current player not named Alex Ovechkin or Jarome Iginla (minimum 50 games).
He trails only Malkin and Crosby with 20 points this post-season and appears due to come through, posting maybe his finest game of the final in a Game 4 loss with eight attempts on goal.
To his point, three missed the net, another three were blocked, and only two found their way to Pekka Rinne—both of which were stopped.
“He's waited like a long time—he hasn't scored in a long time,” Malkin said, noting the need for the Penguins' leaders to rise up.
“But now it's time," he added. "Last game, I think he [played his] best game in this series and . . . I feel it [Thursday], he'll [play a] great game.”
Kessel had 10 goals and 22 points during last year's Cup run while firing more than four shots per game, mostly alongside Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.
With Malkin, he's shot the puck a lot less (2.8 per game) but still remained largely productive.
Asked how he'd managed to come through previously when under pressure, Kessel responded in typical easy-going fashion: “Just do whatever I do.”
Malkin, the second-highest producing current player in the post-season after Crosby, wanted to do a better job himself of keeping and shooting the puck more.
He has only four shots in the series, including a shot-less Game 3.
“It's not easy, but I know I can be better myself,” Malkin said.
Some of that started, he believed, with spending more time in the offensive zone and wearing down the top of Nashville's defence.
Malkin figured Subban and Ekholm, as well as Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, were “tired for sure,” with each logging 24-26 minutes per game.
He thought the Penguins got their best looks in Game 4, but ultimately were denied by Rinne, who rediscovered his way after a rocky start to the series.
Scott Wilson, a rookie winger who has lined up with Malkin occasionally this season, thought he was at his best when he was “feisty.”
“I think when he's going, he plays with that fiery edge a little bit,” Wilson noted.
But the Predators' defenders made it tough because of how well they skated and how capable they were with the puck.