PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The puck ended up on Evgeni Malkin’s stick, and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher could feel a sense of dread.
It didn’t matter that the Pittsburgh Penguins centre hadn’t played in more than a week due to a concussion. Give the reigning NHL MVP a sheet of open ice in a tight game and things typically aren’t going to end well.
“We gave it to him,” Boucher said. “That’s unacceptable.”
So was the result for Tampa Bay.
Seconds later, Malkin split two defenders and tucked the puck into a wide-open net to tie the game, sparking a furious third-period rally as the Penguins beat the Lightning 4-3 on Monday night.
Malkin later added an assist on James Neal’s empty-net goal, punctuating the Russian’s return 11 days after suffering short-term memory loss and headaches when he slammed into the end boards during a win over Florida on Feb. 22. The 26-year-old was cleared to return to practice Sunday and was given the OK to play after passing the litany of NHL-mandated tests.
Considering the way Malkin dominated his teammates during workouts, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t stunned to see Malkin play so brilliantly.
“He had guys shaking their heads at how strong he was yesterday,” Bylsma said. “They were pretty amazed at how physical and strong he was on the puck, so to see him come out and play that way and be confident, I’m not real surprised.”
Neither was teammate Sidney Crosby, who knows a thing or two about coming back from concussions after the injury cost him the majority of two seasons.
“He looked really good, I think, for a first game back,” Crosby said. “I don’t know if he was doing any stick-handling while (he was out) but it looked pretty sharp. It’s fun. When he’s going like that it’s pretty tough to stop him.”
The Penguins, too.
Less than 2 minutes after Malkin put the puck by Anders Lindback, Crosby gave Pittsburgh the lead for good with a one-timer from the slot. Crosby also collected his NHL-leading 25th assist as the Penguins remained unbeaten against the Lightning at Consol Energy Center during the regular season.
Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos scored twice to boost his league-leading total to 17, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Lightning from dropping their fifth straight.
“It’s the little things sometimes you get away with in the game and nobody ever talks about it, and right now it’s costing us,” Stamkos said. “When you’re on a streak like that, those little things, it’s almost like you have to play a perfect game.”
The Lightning did for the better part of two periods, taking a 2-1 lead before giving it away.
“We sabotaged ourselves with two turnovers,” Boucher said. “There’s no excuse. There’s no reason for it. They’re easy plays. Make the easy play and that’s it.”
Marc-Andre Fleury helped shore up a leaky Pittsburgh defence by making 25 saves as the NHL’s two highest-scoring teams kept things in check until the final 20 minutes.
“We were a lot more responsible in the defensive zone,” Pittsburgh defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “Once we got to the offensive zone, it wasn’t like we were cheating and cheating.”
Tampa Bay starting goaltender Mathieu Garon left early in the second period with a lower-body injury, pressing Lindback into action. Boucher wouldn’t elaborate on the severity of Garon’s injury, but said the team will promote a goaltender from the AHL just in case. The Lightning play in New Jersey on Wednesday.
Lindback stopped 16 shots, but was overmatched when two of the league’s best players put on a show early in the third period.
“We’re playing good against the top teams, and they’ve got a great lineup and our young guys are matching up with them, and we’re right there and we’re so close,” Boucher said. “We’ve just got to learn to get rid of those turnovers and being impatient with our offence when we didn’t need to at all.”
Pittsburgh allowed the Lightning one power play and kept Tampa Bay in check for long portions—save for a brief breakdown in the second period. Stamkos scored from the front of the net when the Penguins decided to leave him by himself on the doorstep.
The goal tied it 1-1 and Tom Pyatt put the Lightning ahead with just over 8 minutes to play in the second period. Nate Thompson’s wrist shot from between the circles smacked Pyatt in the face before floating softly over the head of Fleury, who was on his knees and never moved until the red light came on.
The Lightning, who blew an early two-goal lead in a loss to Boston on Saturday, again faltered in the third while Pittsburgh continued its mastery of Tampa Bay—at least during the regular season.
NOTES: The Penguins scratched D Paul Martin, who remains day to day with a lower body injury. Pittsburgh also scratched LW Zach Boychuck and D Robert Bortuzzo … Tampa Bay scratched D Brendan Mikkelson and D Marc-Andre Bergeron … Pittsburgh is off until Thursday, when it plays at Philadelphia.
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP