PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Evgeni Malkin can’t really explain what’s going on with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’d rather just enjoy the ride.
Malkin pounded home a rebound 1:31 into overtime to lift the streaking Penguins to their sixth straight win, a 4-3 triumph over the Washington Capitals on Sunday.
“I have great confidence now, you know?” Malkin said. “You win six games, I think everyone has great confidence now. I just am enjoying the game, you know? And having fun.”
Considering the way things have been going for Pittsburgh, it’s kind of hard not to.
Malkin has now scored in six straight games, matching the longest streak in the league this year. The Russian added two assists to push his league-leading point total to 58 and give the Penguins their first regular-season home win over the Capitals since Dec. 27, 2007.
James Neal scored twice and assisted on the winner as Pittsburgh’s top line once again did most of the heavy lifting.
“They’re the big line for us right now and they come up big every night,” said Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang, who scored for the second straight game. “They’ve been playing really well, and I don’t know what to say about Malkin. He’s just playing unbelievable right now. He’s playing the best hockey I’ve seen of him.”
Fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin matched Malkin with a goal and two assists for the Capitals. Alexander Semin had a goal and an assist, while Brooks Laich added a goal as Washington rallied from an early two-goal deficit before falling short.
“We battled, we had our chances just like they did,” Washington coach Dale Hunter said. “Malkin slips away for a second on the back boards, you know, not a pass or anything, just a shot and he’s a good player and good players score like that.”
The Capitals kept the league’s hottest team under wraps most of the game, taking a 3-2 lead 1:08 into the third period on Ovechkin’s 20th goal of the season, a one-timer off a perfect feed from Semin.
Neal drew Pittsburgh even with his second goal of the game, beating Neuvirth with a wrister from the right slot to tie it 3-3. The Capitals nearly extended their points streak at Consol Energy Center to nine games late in the third, but Troy Brouwer’s slapshot from the right circle clanged off the far post in the final minute of regulation.
It was all the reprieve the Penguins would need.
Pittsburgh controlled the brief overtime. Neal fired a long shot from the point that sailed wide of the net but caromed off the boards and onto the stick of Malkin on the right post. He had little trouble getting it by Neuvirth.
Neuvirth overcame a shaky start to finish with 23 saves but couldn’t stop the Capitals from losing for the third time in four games. Washington is now 8-12-3 since Hunter took over for Bruce Boudreau in November.
One of those victories was a 1-0 win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 11—a game the Penguins feel changed their fortunes.
Though the defeat extended Pittsburgh’s then-losing streak to six games—the franchise’s worst stretch in two seasons—Penguins coach Dan Bylsma thought he saw a flicker of improvement in his team’s execution and attitude.
He was right.
Pittsburgh hasn’t lost since and is on its longest winning streak since ripping off 12 straight wins from Nov. 17-Dec. 11, 2010. That team, however, was at full strength. These Penguins are still missing captain Sidney Crosby, who remains sidelined indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms.
At the moment, Pittsburgh is getting by just fine without their superstar.
Having Malkin in top form has certainly helped. Fully healed from the torn ACL in his right knee that cut short his 2010-11 season, Malkin has been arguably the best player in the game over the last two months and has lately shown a flair for the dramatic.
He posted a natural hat trick in the third period of a victory over Tampa Bay last weekend and scored the game-tying goal late in regulation before collecting the shootout winner in a 5-4 victory over Montreal on Friday night.
Pittsburgh didn’t look as though it would need Malkin to save the day after racing to a quick 2-0 lead. Letang beat Neuvirth on a long slapshot from the point on the power play to put the Penguins on the board 4:51 into the game and Neal doubled Pittsburgh’s advantage just over a minute later.
The Capitals responded with three straight goals during a 10-minute stretch spanning the second and third periods, capped by Ovechkin’s blast.
Yet it wasn’t enough—for once—as Malkin kept Pittsburgh’s hot streak going. He has 17 goals and 17 assists—the most in the league—since Crosby went out of the lineup when his symptoms returned following a Dec. 5 loss to Boston.
“(Malkin’s) controlling the game so well right now,” Ovechkin said. “He knows that without Crosby (their) team is good, but not that good. He’s handling it well.”
NOTES: The Capitals scratched D Tomas Kundratek, D Jeff Schultz and C Marcus Johansson. … Pittsburgh scratched D Ben Lovejoy and F Arron Asham, who is out indefinitely with a concussion. Asham is the sixth Pittsburgh player this year to be diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms. … The Capitals host Boston on Tuesday while Pittsburgh travels to St. Louis.