PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Evgeni Malkin took the puck at the blue-line and flipped it toward the empty net in search of his ninth career hat trick.
Clank. The shot caromed off the right post and out of harm’s way just before the buzzer sounded in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday.
Turns out, the NHL’s hottest player isn’t perfect. Then again, nobody in the league is closer at the moment. Malkin’s two goals pushed his league-leading point total to 69 as the Penguins won their sixth straight home game.
“It looks like he did in 2009 maybe when (Sidney Crosby) went down and he kind of took over, that was kind of unbelievable,” Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang said of Malkin. “But his game is better than it was two years ago. I think he’s playing great hockey, and this is the first time I’ve seen him being that dominant.”
Letang and Chris Kunitz each added a goal and two assists for the Penguins, while James Neal chipped in three assists as Pittsburgh kept Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos in check.
The NHL’s leading goal scorer was held pointless and mustered just one shot against Pittsburgh’s Brent Johnson, who overcame some early jitters to make 21 saves.
“We had the best record in the NHL in the last 10 games, but we certainly didn’t look like that today,” Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said.
Steve Downie scored twice in an 11-second span in the first period for the Lightning, but the Penguins roared back from a two-goal deficit for the second time in two days behind Malkin.
The Russian has scored in eight straight games at Consol Energy Center, the second-longest home-scoring streak in team history. Mario Lemieux scored in 13 straight home games during the 1995-96 season.
Boucher just shrugged his shoulders when asked how to stop Malkin.
“Well, we certainly didn’t have the answer, that’s for sure, so you have to ask somebody else (other) than me,” he said.
Stamkos has been nearly as hot for the Lightning. He came in with 10 points during a six-game point streak but again struggled to find room to manoeuvr against Pittsburgh.
The Penguins have shut down the budding superstar since Stamkos broke into the league in 2008. The gifted winger came in with just three goals in 14 regular-season games against Pittsburgh and was held without a shot in a 6-3 loss in Tampa on Jan. 15.
Pittsburgh’s top defensive pairing of Letang and Brooks Orpik held the high-scoring Stamkos in check once again but briefly had trouble containing Downie.
The blue-collar forward came in with only nine goals this season before beating Johnson twice on the same shift. Downie took advantage of a turnover then fired a slapshot that handcuffed Johnson to put Tampa Bay on the board. He lit the lamp again 11 seconds later, tapping in a pass from Teddy Purcell on the doorstep to make it 2-0 halfway through the first period.
The flurry seemed to wake up Malkin—as usual. The Penguins have trailed early in each of their last six home games, and come back to win each one, including an 8-5 rout of Winnipeg on Saturday after spotting the Jets an early pair of scores.
Malkin’s power-play goal—a bomb from the right circle that sailed over Tampa Bay’s Mathieu Garon—with less than four minutes to go in the first got Pittsburgh going.
And the Penguins didn’t stop there.
Kunitz tied it at 2-2 early in the second when the Lightning became so focused on Malkin they let Kunitz race down the middle of the ice practically uncontested. He beat Garon with a backhand and the Penguins were off to the races.
“We’re all disappointed with the game we played tonight,” Garon said. “We didn’t play our best game for sure.”
Boucher tried to calm things down, calling a timeout in hopes the Lightning would catch their breath.
Letang put Pittsburgh in front 29 seconds later on a perfect feed from Kunitz, who later assisted Malkin for an easy tap-in goal.
It was all the offence Johnson would need. The veteran had lost each of his previous four starts, raising concerns about Pittsburgh’s goaltending depth as the post-season slowly approaches.
While Johnson wasn’t spectacular, he was steady, which is about all the Penguins need these days considering the way the offence is humming.
“He played solid and shut the door when he needed to,” Bylsma said of Johnson. “He’s going to need to get some more wins because we’re going to have some more back-to-back games coming up.”
The last time Tampa Bay visited Consol it walked out with a win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.
That Penguin team, however, was struggling to score without Malkin and Crosby, both sidelined with injuries. Crosby is again on the injured reserve due to concussion-like symptoms, but Pittsburgh is getting by just fine without its captain.
Malkin kept the Lightning from creeping above .500 for the first time since Nov. 28. Tampa Bay came in 7-1-2 in its last 10 games to show signs of getting back in the playoff chase, but couldn’t keep up with the Penguins turned up the pressure.
NOTES: Crosby skated for about an hour early Sunday but there remains no timetable for his return … Johnson picked up his 10th career assist on Kunitz’s goal … Garon had been 6-0-2 in his last eight starts … The Lightning host Ottawa on Tuesday, while the Penguins wrap up a three-game homestand on Wednesday against Anaheim. … Neal now has a career-high 55 points … D Marc-Andre Bergeron and D Matt Gilroy were scratched by Tampa Bay, while D Ben Lovejoy and F Tyler Kennedy were scratched by Pittsburgh.