— -- PITTSBURGH -- It was really kind of a joke to begin with.
Oh, poor Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, he has to worry about what to do now that former playoff MVP, two-time scoring champ and league MVP Evgeni Malkin is coming back into the lineup.
That's the kind of problem every NHL coach should have to wake up to.
But in the wake of Saturday's 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers, which evens this first-round series at 1-1, it's obvious that reintegrating one of the game's best players into the middle of a playoff series is a kind of a science and not necessarily a precise one at that.
Consider that from the moment Malkin was injured during a March 11 game against the Columbus Blue Jackets with a suspected shoulder injury, the Penguins have gone an amazing 14-2, including their 5-2 loss in Game 1 of this series Wednesday night.
Now this isn't to suggest that Malkin was at the root of Saturday's loss, one that included a late second-period lapse that allowed the Rangers to score three times in a 4-minute, 14-second span late in the second period, as well as adding another in the first minute of the third period to completely change the complexion of a game the Penguins had led 1-0 and looked like a team headed for a 2-0 series lead.
And for a guy who hadn't played in more than a month, Malkin didn't look bad while he played 18:47, picking up a secondary assist on a third-period power-play goal.
But he also looked at times like a guy who had been out a month, dropping passes into open spaces and not getting after pucks as quickly as he will likely get to them in the coming days when he gets his legs under him.
The challenge for Malkin was exacerbated by the fact that he started at his natural position as a center, playing with young wingers Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, but also played considerable time on the left wing with captain Sidney Crosby. A slow read by Malkin off the opening faceoff of the second period led to a great Ranger chance.
Malkin admitted he found the switching back and forth difficult.
"I like [to] play one position whole game," he said. "I think it's just one game. It's because we have five centers and it's little bit tough for Coach, but I think next game I will play at center."
Sullivan acknowledged that in a perfect world Malkin will play down the middle.
The problem is where down the middle is the best fit not just for one of the game's great talents but the best fit for a team that missed an opportunity to put the Rangers on the ropes.
It's not just whether Malkin should go back to playing with Hagelin and Kessel, because one of the impressive things about the Penguins' play down the stretch was just how nicely everything fit in spite of Malkin's absence.
Now, at least in the short term, Malkin's return is complicating if not downright unsettling.
Example? Chris Kunitz, Crosby's longtime left winger, played just 5:24 in the first period and finished with 12:29 in ice time, his lowest total of the season.
"I mean, I wouldn't say it's unsettling," Crosby said. "You know when [Malkin is] out there and we're playing together, I think he takes up a lot of space and guys have to key on him, so there should be some space there for one of us. I think that with not playing for a month and a half, I'm sure being thrown onto the wing is going to be a little bit of an adjustment here and there -- and who knows how things are going to shake out."
Funny how these things work. As the Penguins were feeling their way around for their game identity, maybe for the first time since Malkin's injury the Rangers were rediscovering theirs.
After allowing the Pens to score at crucial moments in Game 1, on Saturday the Rangers held fast behind Henrik Lundqvist at those same crucial moments and then capitalized on chances they'd failed to connect with in Game 1.
As usual it begins and ends with Lundqvist, back after missing the final two periods of Game 1 with an eye injury, making key stops to keep the Rangers within one in the second period and then to preserve a one-goal lead later in the second.
Those saves seemed to imbue the hard-skating Rangers forwards with more confidence. They were credited with outhitting the Penguins 41-15 through two periods. As Sullivan noted, sometimes those kinds of stats suggest one team has the puck a lot more but that wasn't the case Saturday as the Penguins were guilty of a series of turnovers and miscues on which the game turned.
"That's what's going to limit their time and space," offered Ranger center Derek Stepan. "When they have time and space, they're just too good. I'm sure as the playoff series goes on, you're going to see both teams get more and more physical."