PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Two weeks ago when the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the midst of a six-game losing streak, a bad bounce and a couple of fluky goals would have been enough to bury them.
It’s not two weeks ago. Not by a long shot.
Evgeni Malkin capped a furious third-period rally by scoring his 25th goal of the season and added the lone tally in a shootout to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 5-4 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night.
“We keep coming at you, keep coming at you,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
It’s kind of easy when you have the hottest player in the league running the show.
Malkin’s sizzling slap shot from the top of the right circle with 2:43 left in regulation beat Peter Budaj and tied the game. The normally reserved Russian was so fired up he turned and banged angrily on the glass in celebration. He played nearly 26 minutes a night after he scored twice in a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers.
“I don’t know how the energy is coming,” Malkin said. “It was just we were losing and I wanted to win this game.”
Dustin Jeffrey scored twice and added an assist for Pittsburgh, and Kris Letang had a goal and an assist. Marc-Andre Fleury overcame a shaky start to finish with 25 saves to help the Penguins win their fifth straight.
“I think everybody’s feeling confident, even though we’re down a lot in the game, I think everybody kept staying positive throughout,” Fleury said.
Andrei Kostitsyn and Erik Cole each had a goal and an assist for the Canadiens. Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty also scored, and Budaj made 34 saves.
Montreal appeared ready to notch its second impressive victory in a week, taking a 4-2 lead into the third period against a Pittsburgh team playing its third game in four days.
Then the Canadiens decided to play it safe. Not the best idea considering how well Malkin is playing at the moment.
With Malkin playing nearly half the period, the Penguins kept pushing. Jeffery scored his second goal of the game and the season 3:32 into the third to pull Pittsburgh to 4-3. Budaj dug in, but the Penguins were relentless, keeping the pressure on the backup netminder.
Malkin finally broke through, tying it with a sizzling slap shot perfectly placed over Budaj’s stick.
“He’s able to do a lot of things that a lot of guys aren’t able to do,” Jeffrey said about Malkin. “He seems to be scoring those timely goals for us. What he’s been doing lately for us, it’s just unbelievable.”
Fleury kept the rally going by making a couple of nice stops in overtime and had no problems in the shootout. Neither did Malkin, who slipped the puck past Budaj in the second round.
Suddenly, Pittsburgh’s pitiful losing streak is a distant memory.
A well-timed players only meeting and a rare appearance on a road trip by injured star Sidney Crosby sparked a quick turnaround. Pittsburgh recovered behind Malkin, who has 10 goals in his last eight games.
The reeling Canadiens have struggled to find traction under coach Randy Cunneyworth and let another lead get away, something that happened with regularity under fired coach Jacques Martin.
“I don’t think it’s about pressing, I think it’s about not backing off,” Montreal defenceman Hal Gill said. “We have to play with poise in that situation.”
Montreal needed just 34 seconds to take the lead on a bit of a fluky goal by Eller, who put his stick on the ice to control a deflection off Pittsburgh defencemen Deryk Engelland’s skate. Eller didn’t really shoot the puck, it just kind of caromed off his stick with so much velocity it slid past the surprised Fleury.
Letang drew Pittsburgh even less than four minutes later, skating from the point deep into the zone and stuffing it past Budaj for his first goal since Nov. 26, when he scored in overtime. A day later, Letang learned he sustained a concussion following a collision with Pacioretty, leading to nearly two months on the injured reserve.
The defenceman returned Thursday night in a win over the New York Rangers and looked fresh on the second half of a back-to-back.
The same couldn’t be said of his teammates, at least through the first two periods.
Pittsburgh played its best game against a quality team all season in dropping the Rangers, leading all the way for a road win that proved their recent surge wasn’t simply a product of a soft spot in the schedule.
The Penguins didn’t have the same fire against the cellar-dwelling Canadiens, who built a pair of two-goal leads, with the league’s worst power-play unit even chipping in a rare goal courtesy of a wrist shot from the slot by Kostitsyn.
When Pacioretty beat Fleury midway through the second to put Montreal up 4-2, it looked as if the Canadiens were on their way.
They weren’t, getting outshot 14-7 in the third period to let another lead slip away.
“It’s frustrating for everybody,” Cunneyworth said. “I mean, we deserved maybe a little better fate for going ahead as we did, but it’s a battle out there and I think we have to continue to keep battling hard and work right until the end.”
NOTES: Jeffrey’s goals were his first since scoring a pair against Boston last March. … Pittsburgh has outshot the opposition in 13 straight games. … Defencemen Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber were scratched by Montreal. … Defenceman Ben Lovejoy and forwards Jason Williams and Arron Asham were scratched by the Penguins.