Over the past week, the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled out hard-fought wins against division opponents ahead of them in the standings, including one of their most complete games of the year in Tuesday’s 2-0 blanking of the East-leading New York Rangers. They also came out last Sunday and laid an egg against a non-playoff team, losing to the Buffalo Sabres, 6-2.
“When we play those big teams, especially in our conference, it feels like we’re always up for them,” said defenseman Paul Martin. “It’s a big challenge, and we’ve proven to ourselves that we can play with everyone. We’ve just got to make sure we play that way when we play other teams, make sure we’re up for the games and ready to play. If you’re not up for it every night, you can lose to anyone in this league. The parity is too great.”
Facing back-to-back postseason longshots in the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets this weekend, it was reasonable to wonder which version of the Penguins would show up. Saturday, at least, Pittsburgh answered that question beginning midway through the first period and didn’t stop until the final buzzer, pummeling the Lightning in an 8-1 win.
The Penguins were led by the man who’s led them all season in captain Sidney Crosby’s absence, as Evgeni Malkin scored four points, including a hat trick. Malkin found a way to further elevate his game in this contest after an incident midway through the second period, when he was knocked into goaltender Dwayne Roloson and the Lightning netminder responded with a shove to Malkin’s face.
“I’m a little bit mad because it’s not my fault,” Malkin said. “I control the puck, it’s the defenseman who cross-checks my back, and I lose my balance and just punch [Roloson’s] arm a little bit. I don’t know why he punched me.”
But Malkin had the last laugh, shooting Roloson a pointed glare after his first goal, a one-timer from a sharp angle.
“After I score, of course I want him to see my face,” he said. “I’m happy.”
To say that the Penguins are happy with Malkin’s play of late would be an understatement.
“He has a rare combination of size, speed and skill,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “It’s a motivated guy and a tough guy to handle. He can play down low, he can play a power forward type of game in the offensive zone, and he has the speed and skill to play a quick game. And we saw him, in a couple instances tonight, really dazzle.”
Malkin’s second goal of the day was a particularly dazzling individual effort, as he sped through the neutral zone, split the defense, deked around a final defender and slid the puck under Roloson. It was also just the latest entry in a season where the 25-year-old center seems to keep finding new levels.
“Maybe [one of my best]; I don’t know,” Malkin said of the goal, which immediately inspired comparisons to one by Mario Lemieux in the 1991 Stanley Cup Final against the Minnesota North Stars. “I haven’t seen the replay, but it looked good, I think.”
“Just another great game by him,” said center Jordan Staal. “He just goes in spurts and he can take over a game with one shift. He’s definitely a lot of fun to watch.”
Malkin’s four-point effort gave him a four-point lead over Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos in the league scoring race, but Malkin said he’s not watching.
“I’m trying to not think about my points,” he said. “When you start thinking, it’s a little bit too much in your head. I’m just thinking about my games – what I do right, what not. I talk to coach [Bylsma] and he helps me a little bit to just focus on my game, focus on my linemates, and we do a great job again today.”
The performance by Malkin overshadowed a dominant effort by Staal, who netted two goals on five shots, scoring shorthanded and on the power play to give him 21 goals on the season and nine points (6G, 3A) in his last seven games.
“For the most part, I’m getting a lot of opportunities offensively, getting the chance to play a lot more on the offensive side of the puck, like on the power play today,” Staal said. “And I’m obviously blessed with playing with some good linemates as well, and it’s been going through.”
The offensive explosion also overshadowed a fine performance by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 34 of 35 Lightning shots, making big saves to keep Tampa Bay from getting back into the contest before the score became lopsided. For his 32nd win of the season – tied for second-best in the NHL – Fleury was rewarded with the lunch pail the team gives to its hardest-working player after a win.
“It shouldn’t be overlooked,” Bylsma said. “This game could’ve certainly been a different look if he didn’t make four or five spectacular saves, and we left him with a couple breakaways as well against some good players. You look up [at the scoreboard] and you feel good at 5-0, but it could’ve easily been a lot closer of a game than that.”
“I think the guys in the room knew what he did today,” Staal said. “He made some really big saves, kept it out of our net and gave us an opportunity to really take over the game. Flower’s been really solid for us throughout the whole year.”
For Fleury’s part, he’s just glad he doesn’t have to stop the NHL’s hottest scorer.
“Probably try to take his [surgically repaired] knee out,” Fleury joked in response to how he’d approach the task of shutting Malkin down. “That would be my guess.”