Friday, May 27, 2022

NHL Star Power Index: Evgeni Malkin returns to red-hot Penguins, Joe Pavelski defies expectations

Welcome to the NHL Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players who are controlling substantial buzz around the league. When a player is included on this list it may not be a good thing — it means that they are capturing a large amount of the hockey world’s attention.

These players are in no particular order when it comes to the amount of buzz that they’re creating. We’ll revisit the Star Power Index every week throughout the regular season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the hottest team in the NHL over the last month. This is a group that has won 12 of its last 13 games and had a 10-game winning streak ended with a loss to the Dallas Stars last Saturday.

Now the Penguins are becoming even more dangerous as star center Evgeni Malkin recently made his season debut after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

Malkin announced his return to the lineup with a three-point performance in a 4-1 Penguins’ win over the Anaheim Ducks last Tuesday. The Russian star scored a pair of goals against the Ducks and appeared as though he didn’t miss a beat.

Early in the second period of Tuesday’s contest, Malkin received a pass from teammate Kris Letang and ripped a one-timer against Ducks goaltender Anthony Stolarz. Later in the period, Malkin netted his second goal of the night after he was able to deflect the puck into the back of the net.

Malkin was certainly the beneficiary of the Penguins getting traffic in front of Stolarz. However, his first goal came as a result of his cannon of a shot.

The Penguins got off to a brutal start as they lost 10 of their first 15 games of the 2021-22 season. Obviously, it’s tough to win games when both Sidney Crosby and Malkin are out of the lineup to start off the year. However, their recent play, combined with having Malkin back in the lineup, has been downright impressive. It’s been no secret that Malkin’s biggest enemy has been his ability to stay healthy. After all, he’s only appeared in a full 82-game season twice in his NHL career. 

Still, seeing Crosby and Malkin on the ice together reminds hockey fans of those three Stanley Cups that the duo won together.  Pittsburgh is currently just three points out from the top spot in the Metropolitan Division behind the Carolina Hurricanes. If the Penguins can have their core of Crosby, Malkin, and Jake Guentzel remain healthy down the stretch, the sky could be the limit for this team in terms of a postseason run.

It appears that Dallas Stars veteran forward Joe Pavelski may be an ageless wonder.

Despite being 37, Pavelski is having an extraordinary season that has seen him lead the Stars in points (36), goals (15), assists (21) and plus/minus (+12). During the month of January, the Stars forward has gotten off to a torrid start in which he’s registered three goals and six assists in six games.

Recently, Pavelski put together his best outing of the season in which he scored a pair of goals and dished out three assists in the Stars’ 5-2 win over the Seattle Kraken on Wednesday.

While Pavelski isn’t quite as explosive as he once was, he still has a knack for being dangerous around the net. In Wednesday’s win, Pavelski found himself in the right place at the right time as teammate Esa Lindell put the pick right on his stick and Pavelski tapped it in for an easy goal.

This truly seems to be the year in which some of the league’s aging veterans are showing that they still have plenty left in the tank. Much like Alex Ovechkin, Pavelski is leading his team by example and has had no problem putting the puck in the net despite his advanced age.

For a team that features a gifted offensive weapon like David Pastrnak, many would think that he would be the straw that stirs the drink for the Boston Bruins. However, that hasn’t been the case throughout the 2021-22 season thus far.

In fact, Bruins winger Brad Marchand leads the team in points (43), goals (20) and assists (23). As a whole, Marchand has put together an incredible campaign thus far — but he’s been absolutely on fire as of late.

In three games last week, the veteran winger has registered a grand total of eight points and has had multiple points in each of those contests. Wednesday’s performance is arguably the most eye-popping as Marchand recorded his first hat trick of the season against the Montreal Canadiens. What made it even more impressive was the fact that he recorded the hat trick in only two periods.

Marchand continues to showcase. his prowess as one of the grittiest players that the NHL has to offer. He certainly possesses the ability to get under the skin of his opponents, but there’s no denying how gifted of a playmaker Marchand is, too.

Star players returning has seemed to be a theme around the NHL as of late. Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov also made his way back to the lineup earlier this month. Kucherov had been out since October after undergoing surgery for a lower-body injury.

It’s safe to say that Kucherov hasn’t missed a beat since his return to the lineup.

Kucherov has registered points in four of his five games since returning to the ice. He has recorded three goals and six assists in those five games and had multiple points in four of those contests.

In two games last week, Kucherov looked just about unstoppable. On Tuesday, Kucherov had a hat trick in a 6-1 Lightning win over the Buffalo Sabres. He followed that performance up with a pair of assists against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday. He ended the week with a two-assist performance against the Dallas Stars on Saturday.

Kucherov has one of the most wicked shots in the sport when he gets in open space. He was certainly able to do that as he completed his hat trick against the Sabres. Kucherov received the puck in wide-open space from defenseman Victor Hedman and absolutely ripped it past Malcolm Subban for the easy goal.

Kucherov has displayed in the past that he can hop right off the injured list and make an immediate impact. During the 2020-21 season, Kucherov underwent hip surgery in December and missed the entire regular season. He was able to return for the playoffs and registered a playoff-leading 32 points en route to the Lightning repeating as Stanley Cup champions. 

If Kucherov is able to stay healthy, the Lightning are always capable of making a deep postseason run. Even without Kucherov for the majority of the season, Tampa Bay has managed to leap into first place in a very competitive Atlantic Division.

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