After amazing start to playoffs, Malkin struggling versus Flyers

PITTSBURGH -- As the Eastern Conference finals enter either their second or final phase Sunday afternoon -- depending, of course, on the Philadelphia Flyers' continued resilience -- the biggest question facing the Pittsburgh Penguins is this:

More from Pens-Flyers

• Given the number of scrums and pushing matches that dominated the final minute of Thursday's Game 4, Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien was criticized in some quarters for having his top players, including Sidney Crosby, on the ice near the end of the game.

Therrien explained Friday that, with about 10 seconds left in the game, he was told by the on-ice officials the Penguins would have a 5-on-3 power play. With netminder Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench, it would be a 6-on-3, so Therrien put out his power-play unit in the hopes of scoring a quick goal. But when the puck was dropped, the manpower situation was different and Therrien took those top players off the ice at the next whistle.

"When all the players were on the ice, [the referee] came to the bench and told us they don't have two minors, they've got one minor," Therrien said. "All players were there already, so that was a bad communication from the referee to the bench. They changed their mind. They changed their call and the call was there."

• Asked about the lack of penalty calls against the Flyers the past couple of games, Therrien once again offered a perhaps tongue-in-cheek assessment.

"Well, I don't know, it's tough for me to say," Therrien said. "The one thing I know, since the Flyers complained after Game 2 that they spent time in the penalty box, it seems that since then, they're really disciplined. We only had two power plays a game. And that's all I could say. That, yes, they're disciplined. We're having a hard time with our speed to be able to draw a penalty."

-- Scott Burnside

Has Evgeni Malkin hit the wall?

Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and even through the first game of this series, Malkin was the best player on the ice. He was the Penguins' early candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the words of praise for the talented Russian center could not come fast enough.

And, to be sure, he earned every accolade.

After registering 17 points in his first 10 postseason games, Malkin has just one assist and is minus-3 in the last three games against the Flyers. When you notice him now, it's not for making the spectacular move or the deadly shot, but the errant pass and the aborted solo rush.

"Yeah, you know what, he hasn't been productive like he was in the past," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said Friday during a conference call with reporters. "But he's going to have to find a way next game to make sure he's going to be productive like he used to be as soon as the playoffs start."

The team did not skate Friday following Thursday's 4-2 loss in Philadelphia and will next take the ice Saturday for a workout here. Therrien said the Flyers deserve some credit for limiting Malkin's chances and thus curbing his production.

"It's not sometimes a matter of the players not being productive," Therrien added. "Sometimes, you've got to give credit to the other team. They're doing a good job right now to contain him. It's going to be up to Evgeni Malkin to make sure he's going to be productive offensively.

"But, in the meantime, you know, I think he's playing good both places on the ice. He's got to keep focused on those things and keep his concentration there."

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Malkin is just 21 years old.

On Sunday, he will play in his 96th game of the season, not counting exhibition games. That's far more games than he's ever played before in one season. Malkin tore up the league in the second half and fully earned for his Hart Trophy nomination as he finished second in NHL scoring to fellow countryman Alexander Ovechkin. His strong play continued into the playoffs as he scored timely goals, set up teammates and played a strong defensive game.

He has taken monumental steps since his first playoff appearance a year ago, when he was a ghost during the Penguins' five-game opening-round loss to Ottawa, but he is now in uncharted territory in terms of what is expected of him and what he has to give.

Therrien suggested the Penguins' playoff successes, dispatching Ottawa in four games and the New York Rangers in five, have given Malkin and the rest of his squad much-needed time to recoup their strength during this playoff run.

"I could understand fatigue would be a factor if we would have played seven games in every round," Therrien said. "I think we had some quality time for rest. And because of the amount of games that we played in the playoffs, I don't think fatigue is a factor."

Tired or not, hitting the wall or not, the upshot of the Malkin situation is, unless he can regain his groove, there will be increasing pressure on Sidney Crosby to be at the top of his game every night. Not that Crosby doesn't already aspire to that, but as was evident in Game 4 in Philadelphia on Thursday, if Crosby and Malkin are both off at the same time, the Penguins will struggle.

This isn't necessarily astrophysics. How good were the Penguins when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were off? Or the Avalanche, when Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic were both struggling?

This spring, Crosby and Malkin have both been tremendous for the vast majority of the time. How else to explain an 11-2 record and a combined 37 points for the pair?

But if the Penguins eventually polish off the Flyers, whether it's Sunday or Tuesday or even Thursday, the question of Malkin's stamina looms even larger if they face off against Detroit, which holds a 3-1 series lead against Dallas and can advance to the Cup finals Saturday afternoon.

It is one thing to beat Philadelphia without Malkin at his best. The Red Wings will present a much more difficult challenge, and the Penguins will need the Malkin from earlier in this playoff run to stay close.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.