PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin expects Phil Kessel to score in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, and anticipates his own "best game" too.
The Penguins will likely need Malkin and Kessel at their best to wrestle back control of a series that's lately gone the 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."
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 per cent possession mark in the four games so far with five-on-five scoring chances favouring Nashville 24-8.
Kessel hasn't scored since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final (six games), 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 on Wednesday 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. Last game I think he (played his) best game in this series, and I see he is like ice, (but) he plays so hard, and I believe, 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 were ultimately denied by Rinne, who rediscovered his way after a rocky start to the series.
Scott Wilson, a rookie winger who's 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 said.
But the Predators' defenders made it tough because of how well they skated and how capable they were with the puck. It was difficult to establish much pressure because Subban and Ekholm got the puck up and out of the zone with such ease.
A more potent power play would help Malkin and Kessel, who lead the team with 11 power-play points apiece. The unit went 0-6 in the two defeats, but generated more in the latter loss.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has mostly kept the two together at even-strength and underlying numbers suggest that's probably best. Still, it lessens the overall depth of the Pittsburgh lineup and allows the Preds two clean matchups — with Josi and Ellis guarding Crosby, who was a force in Game 4.
Sullivan said earlier this series that the duo is most effective "when they're playing the game the right way, they're winning puck battles, they're good on the wall, they're stopping on pucks, they're being difficult to play against."
"They're obviously very good when they have the puck," Sullivan said. "So usually our challenge with Phil and Geno all the time is just the subtleties and the details of the play away from the puck or without the puck that gives them the ability to get it back when they don't have it."
"Me and Phil, we need (a) big game," Malkin said, "to help the team win."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press