The league’s best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, showed why they are just that on Monday night at CONSOL Energy Center – playing inspired hockey and lifting the Penguins to a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With the Penguins down 2-1 in the third period, Malkin – making his return to the lineup after missing four games with a concussion – and Crosby scored a pair of crucial goals less than two minutes apart that got Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead and got them back in the game.
"In a very short order you see two displays of skill and offense, turning the game quickly from behind down in the third period to being ahead," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
James Neal made it 4-2 when he scored an empty-netter with 51.5 seconds left (which would stand as the game-winner), and Steven Stamkos scored his second of the game to make it 4-3 with eight seconds left. Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz and Tampa Bay’s Taylor Pyatt rounded out the scoring. Marc-Andre Fleury starred in goal for the Pens, while Lightning starter Mathieu Garon left the game in the second period with an injury. He was replaced by Anders Lindback.
TWO-HEADED MONSTER AWAKENS
After the Pens got off to a strong start in Monday’s game, scoring within the first five minutes, the Lightning started surging like the Tesla coils that go off in their home arena when they get a goal.
They gained much-deserved momentum following a terrific penalty kill in the second period, where they somehow managed to keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins' top power-play unit off the scoresheet with lots of blocks and big saves.
Well, that didn’t please the Pens’ two-headed monster.
Crosby and Malkin went into beast mode to score a pair of huge goals that got the crowd on their feet roaring their appreciation for the two superstars, got the Pens back in the game and gave them their first win of the season when trailing after two periods. They weren’t garbage goals, either. Malkin's was especially beautiful, a work of art.
On the play, Malkin picked up a turnover by Eric Brewer in the neutral zone and charged to the net. He somehow slithered through between Brewer and Matt Carle, pulling the puck under the sliding Brewer’s outstretched stick with his backhand while simultaneously leaping over it, and finishing it off by slamming the puck past goalie Anders Lindback. WATCH IT HERE
“It didn’t look like there was any way to get through those two guys and he found a way," Crosby marveled of Malkin's goal, which tied the score 2-2 with 14:22 remaining in the third period. "You don’t see that happen too often.”
Less than two minutes later, Crosby gave Pittsburgh the lead. He managed to settle a bouncing puck and break out of his own zone, carrying into the other end and dropping a pass to Kris Letang. Letang patiently wrapped around the net and found Crosby open in the slot, who slammed it into the cage before Lindback could react.
“Mine wasn’t quite as nice, but they all count,” Crosby smiled. “’Tanger’ made a great play. He showed some great patience coming around the net and I just tried to find an open area, but I had a lot of net to look at there.”
Kunitz said the sequence of goals, which energized the building, certainly energized the team.
“I think that was the reason we won tonight," he said. "We kind of went through a little lull there in the second. They scored a few goals. We didn’t have the same energy that we did in the first. One goal like that by Geno, I think the next shift out I think Sid gets one and that’s a big moment for us.”
MALKIN RETURNS – AND DOMINATES
For those wondering how long it would take Malkin to return to reigning MVP form after missing the last four games with a concussion suffered Feb. 22 at Florida, let me tell you: no time at all.
Tonight was a night where you truly appreciated just how elite of a talent he is, what a difference his presence makes in the lineup – and made you marvel at just how fast he got back to being Geno. He was explosive from the moment he stepped on the ice for his first shift. Malkin stickhandled the puck all over the ice like only he can, forcing turnovers, skirting around defenders and making elite plays look routine.
“He’s obviously a huge part of our team," Kunitz said. "It’s nice to see him not only be healthy, but out there doing the things he does and bringing the fans out of seats.”
Tampa Bay is a team Malkin dominated last season. In his last three games against the Lightning prior to Monday, he scored eight goals (including a pair of hat tricks) and 11 points. He carried that over into tonight's game. Malkin swarmed the net all night, and finally cashed in with an absolutely sick goal to tie the score 2-2.
“I think he just has that talent level and he can do whatever he wants out there," center Brandon Sutter said. "He’s great and he made a great play.”
“He looked really good," Crosby agreed. "When he’s going like that it’s pretty tough to stop him.”
However, the Lightning could have struck a lot more if it hadn’t been for the play of Marc-Andre Fleury.
“He made some big saves," Sutter said. "There could’ve been a few more they could’ve put in, but for him to kind of hold the net and do a good job, it’s great to have him playing well.”
The Pens had a fast start, scoring just 4:13 into the game. But the Lightning turned it on and stormed the zone hard as the evening progressed.
Fleury had to come up with a number of magnificent stops against the NHL’s highest-scoring offense and kept his team in the game with his defensive play, allowing Crosby and Malkin to work their magic offensively. He finished the night with 25 saves.
“Flower doesn’t get enough credit," Kunitz said. "We haven’t played good enough defensively for him. He’s been making big saves at different points in all games. It’s something that he does, he rises to the occasion. But we have to get better at not giving up those opportunities.”
Fleury’s greatest save came on a 2-1 attempt with 9:09 left in the second period and Tampa Bay holding a 2-1 lead. Martin St. Louis carried into the zone and sent a cross-ice pass to defenseman Keith Aulie crashing the net. It looked like a tap-in for Aulie, but somehow, some way, Fleury slid over to make the save and cover it up. Chants of “Fleury! Fleury!” rang out through the building as a result.
“That was a fun one, definitely," a cheerful Fleury said after the game. "I was confident that if I could make a few key saves, we could get a few goals and get the win at the end.”
CAREER STREAK FOR KUNITZ
I saw a tweet during the game from @YahooSportsNHL that joked, “Man, is Sidney Crosby ever riding Kunitz’s coattails.”
I had to laugh. Of course, Crosby is arguably the best player in the NHL, the league’s top scorer and he was flying in this game. But the tweet came right after his linemate Kunitz scored his 12th goal of the season in the opening period, which puts him just two behind James Neal for the team lead.
Kunitz extended his career-long point streak to six games with the score. He has six goals and nine points during the stretch. He now has at least one point in 18 of the Penguins’ 23 games and points in 14 of his last 16.
What's been noticeable about Kunitz's hot streak is that he's getting goals off one-timers from the slot area. He's made a living off crashing to the paint and working the dirty areas, but has been trying to shoot more when he has the chance.
“If you put it on net sometimes it goes in," Kunitz said. "So if I’m in that area, obviously I have a centerman who can put the puck in and find you wherever you are. So you just try to find a soft area and put the puck on net and good things happen.”
Author: Michelle Crechiolo