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Evgeni Malkin’s progressing, but his injury opens the door for a Capitals breakthrough

Malkin being hurt dulls the Penguins’ sharpest edge.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Evgeni Malkin is not playing for the Penguins in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Capitals on Wednesday. Neither will speedy winger and penalty-killer Carl Hagelin. But Malkin’s injury is the most significant development for both Pittsburgh and Washington.

The Penguins don’t get specific about injuries during the playoffs. Malkin traveled with the team to Washington, as he did to Philadelphia for Game 6 in the first round, when he also didn’t play. It’s widely believed he got hurt going to the ice on this play in Game 5:

Whatever ails Malkin is serious, because he’d be playing if it weren’t. There’s good news, though, as of the Penguins’ morning skate before Game 1 on Thursday:

The Penguins have played a league-high 163 playoff games since Malkin’s rookie season in 2007. Malkin has suited up for 154 of them, and seven of the nine he missed were when he was out for the season with a grisly knee injury in 2011.

Malkin has played 3,061 playoff minutes since 2007, more than anyone but teammate Sidney Crosby and the Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith. Lots of guys get nicked up in playoff runs, but Malkin has played through just about everything.

Maybe he returns by Game 2. Maybe he doesn’t. But any amount of time Malkin misses makes the Penguins a lot weaker and improves the Capitals’ chances of getting past the team that’s beaten them in this round of the playoffs time and time again.

Losing Malkin even for a game is significant, obviously. He’s a great player.

He’s one of the five best forwards in the world by whatever measure you prefer. He has been for more than a decade. He’s a playoff horse, too. Among players to appear in at least 40 playoff games since Malkin’s rookie year in ‘07, only Crosby has scored more points per game than Malkin’s 1.05. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run and had a case in each of the last two seasons.

The Penguins have great center depth, but replacing Malkin reverberates around their lineup and makes a bunch of players worse.

The Penguins’ third-line center is Derick Brassard, a trade deadline pickup for Columbus who’d be the second-line anchor for most teams. Their fourth-line center is Riley Sheahan, a trade pickup from Detroit who’s more like a typical third-liner. When Crosby and Malkin are atop the depth chart, the Penguins have a trump-card advantage down the middle. When one of them’s injured, they go from great to good.

The biggest trouble is the Penguins lose a huge matchup advantage. Malkin is better than every center in the world not named Crosby or Connor McDavid. Most teams’ second-best defensive pairings and second-best checking lines aren’t equipped to handle him, but they have to because Crosby’s on a separate line. (Teams might choose to use their best defenders against Malkin and chance it with Crosby. Whatever works for them.)

But when Malkin leaves, the Penguins’ biggest advantage starts to dissipate. Crosby can still dominate, and he did even after Malkin got hurt during Game 5 against the Flyers. Possession stats like shot attempts and scoring chances still show brilliance from Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist. Those players are so good anyway, and they were already going to face the best defense.

But Brassard and Sheahan have it a lot harder when Malkin’s out. The fourth line also needs a new center. That’s Carter Rowney, who watched the Flyers take about 75 percent of the shot attempts during his first game back in the lineup against the Flyers in Game 6.

The Capitals already matched up fine against the Penguins everywhere except center. And without Malkin, they’re in better shape.

Evgeny Kuznetzov and Nicklas Backstrom are both stars. Neither is Crosby or Malkin, but both are better than any centers the Penguins have after their big two.

The Capitals still have the scoring wingers to hang with anyone, mainly because Alex Ovechkin is so good that he lifts up an entire group. Washington’s defensive corps has been iffy at points this season, but it was rock-solid in a four-game winning streak to close out the Blue Jackets in the first round. (The Penguins were mortifyingly inconsistent on D against Philly, helping Matt Murray to two shutouts but letting up 15 goals in the other four games.) In goal, Murray and Braden Holtby have both been up and down, though each can be great.

This series should be really close. Malkin’s injury just might tip it.

It wouldn’t feel Hollywood for the Capitals to finally get over their Penguins hump only when Malkin was on the shelf or limited. But that’s not the Capitals’ problem.