Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor
RALEIGH, N.C. -- If the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to play the way have against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, they may be able to lay claim to being the most offensively dynamic team since the dynastic Oilers of the late '80s.
Saturday night, Pittsburgh handed Carolina a 6-2 loss at the RBC Center in Game 3 of this best-of-7 series. But that wasn't even the biggest offensive outburst of the series for these high-flying Penguins, who scored seven goals in Game 2.
Once again, the Penguins were spearheaded by the one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby had a goal and an assist in the game and Malkin had two first-period goals and an assist to help fuel the rout.
"Sid and Geno, they bring their talent level and they make everybody else better," Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin said. "They make everybody else's talent level go up, as well. That's just what they do for us; they make everybody around them better."
Pittsburgh has 16 goals in three games against Carolina, a defensively sound team that is anchored by an elite goalie in Cam Ward.
If you go back to Game 7 against Washington in the Eastern Conference Semifinals -- a 6-2 smackdown of the higher-seeded Washington Capitals -- Pittsburgh has scored 22 goals in its last four outings.
"I feel this is the best that we have played," said Guerin, who had a sweet assist on Crosby's goal and scored a late goal of his own. Guerin says this is the best offensive team he has played with in a NHL career that dates back to 1992.
Malkin is certainly playing the best he's ever played. The Russian center followed up his hat trick in Game 2 with a two-goal, one-assist performance in Game 3. He has registered multi-point efforts in six-straight games -- something not done since Buffalo's Dale Hawerchuk in 1993 -- totaling 7 goals and 9 assists during that span. He has 6 of Pittsburgh's 16 goals in this series.
"First of all, I think it is my teammates helping me," Malkin said. "I feel great and I think I play not that bad."
"Not that bad" is clearly an understatement by a player still finding a comfort level with the English language.
"I can't remember a time when he has played better," Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton said. "He always plays well, but he has taken it to another level in these playoffs and particularly in this series. And Sid's right there, too.
"It's obviously a nice luxury to have those two guys on our team."
In many ways, Pittsburgh's one-two punch -- Malkin and Crosby have combined for 54 points in 16 playoff games this spring -- harkens back to those dynastic Oilers, who won five Stanley Cups in a seven-year period. At its peak, that team was led by a one-two punch up the middle featuring Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Crosby and Malkin do not have a large enough sample size to be compared to those two legends, but they are starting to show the killer instinct that Gretzky and Messier made into their calling card.
This time, Malkin got the backbreaker, scoring with 11.9 seconds left in the first period to make it 3-1 -- just 31 seconds after Crosby put the Penguins ahead.
It was the opportunistic type of tally that goal scorers make their own when they are on top of their game. Craig Adams tried to dump the puck into the corner, but it hit a linesman along the wall and bounced out to the faceoff circle, where Malkin pounced and drove hard to the net before snaking a shot through Ward's five-hole.
In a virtual blink of an eye, Game 3 had gone from a tied affair to mission impossible for the Hurricanes, who needed this game to stay in the series as only two teams -- the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York islanders -- have ever erased an 0-3 deficit in a best-of-7 series.
Afterward, the Hurricanes knew that Crosby and, to an even greater, extent, Malkin have put them in this hole almost by themselves.
"They are great players and we need to do a better job of keeping them off the scoresheet," center Jussi Jokinen said. "We had a good start to the game; but they got the momentum and the first goal and then those two late goals really hurt us."
They hurt Carolina so badly, in fact, that they're now contemplating the end of what has been a miracle playoff run for these Cardiac Canes.
"Our challenge will be to find a way to beat them once, and then we'll try to revisit that," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "But we're not looking at beating Pittsburgh four times. We need one game."
The final shift of the second period by Sidney Crosby's line pretty well summed up Pittsburgh's dominance for much of the game. In 39 seconds of non-stop action, Pittsburgh forced Rod Brind'Amour into a turnover, generated two shots by Bill Guerin and saw a third by the veteran blocked by a Carolina defender before Cam Ward could get his glove on an errant shot by defenseman Kris Letang. Throughout the shift, Carolina was helplessly chasing the puck -- and after gloving the Letang shot, Ward angrily tossed the puck into the corner after the whistle.
Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar continues to get better each game since his return in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Gonchar played more than 18 minutes on Saturday, contributed assists on Evgeni Malkin's two first-period goals and also blocked three shots.
Evgeni Malkin's power-play goal in the first period was just the second that Carolina has allowed in seven home games this postseason. Boston's Marc Savard scored the other in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals -- Boston's only goal in a 4-1 loss.
With two goals in the first period, Evgeni Malkin now has six consecutive multi-point games in the playoffs, a feat that has not been accomplished in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since Buffalo's Dale Hawerchuk in 1993. The record is eight, by Wayne Gretzky in 1983.
Former Carolina Hurricane Bates Battaglia was on hand for Game 3 to sound the Hurricane Siren, a start-of-game tradition at the RBC Center. Battaglia played for the Hurricanes from 1997 to 2003 and was a member of the 2002 team that went to the Stanley Cup Final. He now owns a business in downtown Raleigh.