Evgeni Malkin’s Availability/Potential Effectiveness Makes Penguins-Capitals even more of a toss-up

Penguins – Capitals is a clear toss-up as the two rivals meet for the third straight year.

Evgeni Malkin’s availability makes it even more of a toss-up.

The Penguins three most important players towards repeating is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray. The Penguins can’t lose one of them for an extended period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Wednesday officially ruled out Malkin and Carl Hagelin for Game 1.

Hagelin is going to miss multiple games in the series, if not the whole series, that’s the Penguins mindset going in, sources say.

Evgeni Malkin is more of a wildcard.

A league source with knowledge of the situation says Malkin has an injury that would sideline for at least To read this insider news, subscribe to get “Inside Access”! growing belief Malkin will return to the lineup somewhere between To read this insider news, subscribe to get “Inside Access”!

The good news for the Penguins is that the team expects to see Malkin in the lineup this series, the question just remains when and how effective will he be in playing through the injury.

A Penguins Game 1 win tonight would be a major bonus for the Penguins in being able to be conservative with Malkin’s injury, though, win or lose, that likely won’t be the thinking. When Malkin’s comfortable enough to suit up, he’ll be playing whether the Penguins are up 2-0 or down 0-2, one source said.

A multiple game absence for Malkin would further put the microscope on the Penguins role players.

Malkin’s absence in Game 1 will see the Penguins spreading their three lines out:

Guentzel – Crosby – Hornqvist
Simon – Sheahan – Kessel
Sheary – Brassard – Rust

“I think we’re trying to find complementary skill sets, guys that have shown an ability to work together and be successful,” Mike Sullivan said of the top-3 lines. “We have some history to draw on and based on that history, we’re trying to make decisions that make us the most competitive.”

Phil Kessel will need to be a lot better than he was in Round 1 and losing one of your top-2 centers is a moment why the Penguins were also fascinated with trying to acquire Derick Brassard prior to the deadline, who would be a No. 2 center on a lot of other clubs.

Brassard was good not great in Round 1 and the microscope certainly turns on him starting tonight with Malkin out.

If the Capitals come out on top in this series, one of the reasons will likely be the Penguins role players coming up small.

Pittsburgh will have Dominik Simon, Riley Sheahan on the second line tonight, not exactly ideal.

Conor Sheary the third line left winger has 2 goals in his last 28 playoff games.

Then there’s the 4th line that will dress tonight of Zach Aston-Reese – Carter Rowney – Tom Kuhnhackl. Good luck getting some offense out of that line.

— The Penguins have haunted the Capitals in the past two series of torching the Capitals bottom-tier defensemen.

Both clubs have clear weaknesses with the third pair and this series could be won with the big boys on D.

John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov are all playing around 12-15 minutes more per game than the Capitals No. 6 defenseman Christian Djoos or Jakub Jerabek.

Pittsburgh’s top guys need to be in the same neighborhood when it comes to the differential between them and Chad Ruhwedel, especially in this series and beyond if the Penguins advanced.

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