PITTSBURGH -- About the only people who weren't surprised to see Evgeni Malkin shake off nine days of rust and any lingering effects from a concussion were his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates.
Playing for the first time in five games after a scary collision into the boards, Malkin had a highlight-reel, game-tying third-period goal, added an assist and was generally his National Hockey League reigning MVP self in leading Pittsburgh to a 4-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night.
Malkin had just been cleared for contact in practice Sunday -- after which the two-time NHL scoring champion opined that he might need more time to return to game action following an injury that led to temporary short-term memory loss.
Based on his strength and performance during the practice, his teammates didn't think he required any more fine-tuning. It was the same old "Geno."
"He had guys shaking their heads at how strong he was yesterday," coach Dan Bylsma said after Monday's game. "They were pretty amazed at how physical and strong he was on the puck yesterday, so to see him come out and play that way and be confident, I'm not real surprised."
Sidney Crosby added a pretty goal of his own to give the Penguins the lead 1:51 after Malkin tied it 5:38 into the third. Chris Kunitz had given Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead off a feed from Crosby in the first period, and James Neal added an empty-net goal with 51.5 left.
The Penguins improved to 21-2-1 in their past 24 home games against Southeast Division teams and 37-6-3 in March games since 2007. Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 25 saves, has 31 of those March home victories. He has won six straight home starts.
Steven Stamkos scored twice to give him a League-leading 17 goals and Tom Pyatt scored a peculiar off-his-face goal for Tampa Bay, which lost its fifth consecutive contest.
"I thought we played... one of our best first two periods all year, real solid, we had the lead, we weren't giving them much ... and then Malkin scores a nice goal and they get some momentum," Stamkos said.
"It's just little assignments we're missing, little things that sometimes you get away with in a game and no one ever talks about it and right now they're costing us. When you're on a streak like that, it's the little things. ... It's pretty frustrating."
Malkin showed no visible ill effects from his concussion, firing a team-high five shots on goal and attempted three others that didn't make it to the net. He also won seven of 12 faceoffs in 15:29 of ice time, adding an assist on Neal's empty-netter.
"I don't know if he was doing any stickhandling while we were gone (on a road trip), but he looked pretty sharp," Crosby said. "It's fun. When he's going like that, it's pretty tough to stop him."
Especially when he's given the puck at the opponent's blue line. Malkin corralled a Lightning turnover, skated hard down the right wing, briefly left his skates to split defensemen Eric Brewer and Matt Carle and deposited the puck behind Tampa Bay goalie Anders Lindback.
"He made a great play -- but we gave it to him," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "We just turned it over at our blue line and gave Malkin the puck at our blue line. Might as well just put the gun to our heads. That's just unacceptable for us.
"You give it to Sidney or Malkin, there you might as well just shoot yourself."
Soon after, Crosby gave the Penguins the lead with his NHL-leading 36th point. Kris Letang circled behind the net to find an open Crosby in the right slot, and Crosby one-timed it in for his 19th point in his past nine games.
Letang added another assist to give him 21 points to lead all NHL defensemen, and Crosby has 11 points in a five-game point streak to maintain his two-point lead over Stamkos in the scoring race.
After the morning skate early Monday, Stamkos unequivocally called Crosby the League's best player, saying "the way he controls the puck -- exciting things happen every time he touches it."
It took all of three shifts for Crosby to give Stamkos a firsthand example. Crosby took the puck along the left-wing boards and fought off, among others, Stamkos in holding it until he fed a wide-open Kunitz in the high slot.
Kunitz beat Tampa Bay goalie Mathieu Garon for his 12th goal of the season, establishing new career highs for a point streak (six games) and goal streak (four games).
After Garon denied several quality Penguins power-play chances during the first two minutes of the second period, he left the game with a lower-body injury. Tampa Bay is expected to promote Cedrick Desjardins from the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League prior to Tuesday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
Twenty seconds later, Stamkos tied the game at 1 with his ninth goal in a 10-game point streak. Victor Hedman slid a pass to Stamkos, who was alone to the left of Fleury.
Tampa Bay took a 2-1 lead on a bizarre goal 12 minutes into the second when Brandon Sutter's stick met Nate Thompson's stick as he attempted to shoot from the slot. The puck fluttered through traffic in the air toward the net, deflecting off of Pyatt's face before settling into the net behind an unsuspecting Fleury.
Ondrej Palat, who was making his NHL debut, earned the second assist on the goal, which was Pyatt's fifth of the season.
Stamkos scored at 19:52 of the third after Tampa Bay had pulled its goalie for an extra attacker, his 10th in his past 10 games. But the Lightning could not get the equalizer.
The Penguins have a six-game home winning streak at home against the Lightning, who have never won at Consol Energy Center. Tampa Bay is 3-11-1 since a 6-1 start.
"We didn't think we'd be in this position after the way we started the year," Stamkos said. "We're in it now, you can't change the past.
"We've got to execute. The coaching staff's preparing us for games -- that's the easy way out when people start talking (about a coaching change). We're not thinking that. The coaching staff's working hard; we're in these games."
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