PITTSBURGH - Nobody's giving Max Talbot the superstar treatment these days.
Talbot, a checking line forward for most of his five-season NHL career, significantly raised his visibility by scoring both goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their dramatic 2-1 victory over Detroit in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in June.
Sidney Crosby got shut out. Evgeni Malkin got shut out. Talbot got two as the Penguins became the first team since 1971 to win a finals Game 7 on the road, and the first since 1979 in any of the major American pro team sports to win a championship-clinching Game 7 away from home.
That's what is making Talbot's tail-off this season so difficult for him to accept. His linescore since that memorable Friday night in Detroit: one goal, five points and a whole lot of disappointment while missing half of the Penguins' 54 games due to multiple injuries.
Slowed by an operation to repair multiple labrum tears in his left shoulder, Talbot was out until mid-November. Since rushing back, he's had trouble finding a regular spot in the lineup and regaining the level of play that allowed him to score eight goals in the playoffs, only four fewer than he scored all last season.
Talbot still can be seen almost around-the-clock in Pittsburgh TV commercials in which he brags about the "superstar treatment" a car dealer affords him. When it's difficult to find him is during games; if the shoulder injury wasn't bad enough, a groin injury has kept him out of the past three games.
"Last spring was fun, it's nice to put up numbers," Talbot said Wednesday. "It was tough missing the first 20 games, trying to get back to the level I can play. If you get frustrated and start seeing negative points, it's not going to be better. I'm not trying to point fingers or make excuses, that's what happened."
Talbot excelled last spring after joining a line with Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko, who also scored two goals during a 2-1 victory in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup finals, for Tampa Bay in 2004. Malkin had 14 goals and Fedotenko seven during the Penguins' playoff run, giving the line a combined 29 goals in 24 games.
Coincidentally or not, both Malkin and Fedotenko are experiencing down seasons, too.
Malkin has 18 goals and 35 assists for 53 points, compared to the 35 goals and 113 points he finished with last season. Fedotenko has eight goals in 52 games.
Their falloff can't be traced entirely to Talbot's down season, since lines are frequently juggled. Still, Fedotenko said the line was settling in again before Talbot was injured Jan. 19 against the Islanders. Malkin scored three goals that night and had four in two games.
"When we were reunited for a few games, I thought we did much better," Fedotenko said "We can see the similarity to how we played in the playoffs. Hopefully, when they put us together (again), we'll get that chemistry back. He just needs to stay healthy. When you have injuries, it's never fun."
Talbot, talkative and upbeat and the kind of player who gives a successful team its personality, is trying not to get too down. While he knows he probably returned too soon after the shoulder surgery, he won't second guess whether doing so set his season back even further.
"I'm not trying to look back, I'm trying to look forward," said Talbot, who has no goals and two assists in his past 19 games. "There's still a lot of the season left. The last 30 games or so you want to play good and help the team win. The team's doing well, and you want to do well, too."
Talbot, 25, recently filmed another TV commercial in which he and Penguins star Sidney Crosby replicated shooting pucks in the basement of Crosby's home, as Crosby did while growing up in Nova Scotia. Predictably, the competition quickly became real, and Crosby doesn't hesitate to brag he won.
To Crosby, this kind of competitiveness illustrates why Talbot is so valuable to the Penguins - although he hasn't scored more than 13 goals in a season - and why they've missed his on-ice presence.
"There's highs and lows, but he's such a hard worker, he's going to get through it, it's just a matter of time," Crosby said. "We've all been there. We know how hard it is to come back from injuries. He comes back and he's out again. That's a tough part of the game, but a challenge we all have to go through."
Even for someone accustomed to being treated like a superstar.
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