PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Evgeni Malkin watched the puck hit the back of the net, dropped to a knee and let loose an emphatic fist pump as the largest crowd in the brief history of Consol Energy Center—including his parents—chanted “MVP! MVP!”
The Russian star’s 50th goal of the season in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Philadelphia sewed up the Art Ross trophy as the league’s top scorer likely inched to his first Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player, but Malkin knows all the personal accolades won’t mean a thing if the Penguins don’t bring home their second Stanley Cup in four years.
“I am glad, this is a great season,” Malkin said. “But we need to work hard in the playoffs too.”
First up, the Flyers, who treated the meaningless regular-season finale as little more than an exhibition. Claude Giroux sat out as a precaution, as did No. 1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
“If the game meant something, it would have been a lot more intense,” Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell said. “We came out of it unscathed I think and now we’ve got to go after them and play our hearts out.”
Hartnell predicts “a lot of blood” when the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday, which gave the regular season finale a bit of a surreal feel.
Outside of some first-period fisticuffs between Pittsburgh’s Joe Vitale and Philadelphia’s Harry Zolnierczyk, there was little of the bile of their previous meeting, a 6-4 Philadelphia win last Sunday that included a brawl in the final minutes and coaches from both teams pointing fingers at the other.
“A lot of what needed to happen, happened and we survived and it’s over,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis also scored for the Penguins, who knocked off the Flyers for the first time at Consol Energy Center. Brent Johnson stopped five shots in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury to get the win, though he couldn’t hold a one-goal lead, preventing Fleury from setting a franchise record with his 227th career victory.
It was the lone disappointment during an otherwise workmanlike performance for Pittsburgh, which will have home-ice as the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed against the fifth-seeded Flyers.
“We wanted to make sure we finished strong and I think that’s what we did the last few games,” Crosby said. “The real season starts now.”
Brayden Schenn and Jaromir Jagr scored for the Flyers while Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 19 shots as Philadelphia rested Bryzgalov, who missed three games recently with a chipped bone in his right foot.
“It wasn’t a good hockey game,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think everybody had their eye on Wednesday and is excited to get going.”
Laviolette was markedly quiet on Saturday, in stark contrast to the stick-smashing performance last Sunday. He was angry after Vitale took out Philadelphia forward Daniel Briere with a vicious—but clean—hit late in the third period, calling Bylsma “gutless” for sending a checking line onto the ice to mix things up with the game out of hand.
The outburst sparked a weeklong onslaught against the Penguins from critics—among them New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, Philadelphia assistant Craig Berube and former NHL coach turned TV analyst Mike Milbury—accusing Pittsburgh of being one of the dirtiest teams in the league.
The usually reticent Crosby called Tortorella’s comments “garbage” and the Penguins downplayed the talk as nothing but gamesmanship.
The only really physical play came early as the Flyers looked to get a little payback against Vitale, who didn’t have to wait long to see if the Flyers wanted to even the score.
The seldom-used Zolnierczyk encouraged Vitale to drop the gloves less than 4 minutes into the game, with Vitale quickly dispatching Zolnierczyk with a series of right hands.
The only other real chippiness came late in the first period when Philadelphia’s Zac Rinaldo earned a 5-minute major and game misconduct for checking Pittsburgh’s Craig Adams from behind.
Things settled down after that as both teams played it close to the vest with nothing to gain.
The drama in an otherwise meaningless game surrounded Malkin and Fleury’s bids for history.
Fleury started in an attempt to become the team’s all-time winningest goaltender. He stopped 14 shots before being replaced by Johnson with 8 minutes to play in the second period as a precaution.
Any chance Fleury had of passing Tom Barrasso ended 52 seconds after Fleury skated to the bench when Jagr scored to tie the game at 2.
Malkin’s pursuit of the record book was far more productive.
Crosby scored his eighth goal of the season with 2:06 left in the second period to put Pittsburgh back in front and Malkin delivered in style, walking through the zone and firing a wrister that slipped past Bobrovsky.
The giddy celebration was an exclamation point for Malkin, who missed most of last season with a knee injury only to come back and carry the Penguins through the regular season while Crosby continued to deal with concussion-like symptoms.
Malkin became the ninth player in Pittsburgh history to reach 50 goals and the sixth Russian-born player in NHL history to hit the mark.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Bylsma said. “To be able to cap that off and get the 50th for him, it’s great. I think everybody was cheering that puck in the goal for most of the game.”
NOTE: Dupuis’ first-period goal pushed his points streak to 17, the longest in the NHL this season and the longest in the league since Crosby’s 25-game run during the 2010-11 season … Pittsburgh scratched forwards James Neal and Steve Sullivan, though both are expected to be ready for the playoffs … The Flyers have allowed the game’s first goal in 24 of their past 32 games. … Philadelphia finished the season with 67 power-play goals, tops in the NHL.