The result? The Evgeni Malkin that the Penguins have waited two seasons to see.
Malkin scored three goals -- a pair of them during a four-goal first period in which much of the Penguins' offense was generated by players called up from the minors -- and Pittsburgh roughed up goalie Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres 8-3 on Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.
With the help of the five fill-ins who recently joined the injury-thinned Penguins, Malkin produced his seventh career hat trick and five points. Rapidly moving up the NHL scoring list, the former Art Ross Trophy winner has four goals in two games and 12 points in his last five games.
Surprisingly, Malkin – the 2008-09 NHL scoring champion– has only one other game this season with more than two points. His hat trick was Pittsburgh's first since Chris Kunitz's against Tampa Bay on Jan. 5, the final game Crosby played last season, and Malkin's first since Nov. 13, 2010 against Atlanta.
"I'm not thinking about my points," Malkin said. "I'm trying to find my game. I had a long time with my knee and now I feel better. I'm just trying to find my level and play my best every game."
Malkin missed the final two-plus months of last season with torn right knee ligaments and, following surgery, he also sat out seven games this season. Still, he has 5 goals and 21 assists for 36 points in 26 games, only a season after he averaged below a point per game for the first time in his career.
"It's good, but it's not a big deal for me," Malkin said of his recent surge.
It is for the Penguins, who badly need his offense with Crosby (concussion-like symptoms) on injured reserve for the second time this season. Crosby can be activated at any time, but there has been no hint when he might return. Defenseman Paul Martin (lower body injury) also sat out this one.
Malkin has six goals and six assists in the five games since Crosby left the lineup.
Miller, 0-5-1 in his last six starts against Pittsburgh with a goals-against average above 5.00, knows how difficult it can be to shut down the Penguins when their stars are streaking. That's why he couldn't have expected this at a time when nine Penguins – including Crosby – are on injured reserve.
But the Penguins needed only 6 minutes, 7 seconds to open a 2-0 lead on goals by Williams and Despres. Williams, who has spent most of the season in the minors, hadn't scored in nearly 10 months; Despres scored his first NHL goal.
"We've been playing good in Wilkes-Barre and we've been bringing the same game up here," said Despres, who joked that the farm club is the "NHL's 31st team."
Miller and the Sabres were coming off a 5-4 win over rival Toronto in front of a loud, animated crowd at the First Niagara Center, but they trailed by at least two goals throughout the final 53 minutes-plus. Luke Adam and Paul Gaustad scored in the third against goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but it was much too late by then.
Fleury stopped 16 shots for his 200th career victory, becoming the fourth-youngest goalie since 1967 to reach that mark. Only Grant Fuhr, Martin Brodeur and Tom Barrasso did it faster than the 27-year-old Fleury.
As coaches sometimes say, momentum is only as good as that day's goaltender; on Friday, backup Brent Johnson allowed five goals in the second period of a 6-4 loss in Ottawa that was Pittsburgh's fourth in five games.
"I'm happy to get it," Fleury said. "This was a big bounce-back game for us. We got goals right away, and it was fun to see."
Miller, by contrast, yielded three goals on seven shots in the first period. Jhonas Enroth gave up the second of Malkin's twin goals in a span of less than eight minutes, but Miller was back in for goals by James Neal and Deryk Engelland as Pittsburgh made it 6-1 in the second.
"It's disheartening to play a back-to-back game and you don't have a save, really," said Miller, who stopped 29 shots on Friday. "That wasn't even close to good hockey on my part. They weren't very good goals."
Enroth returned for the third, when Malkin finished off his big night with his 15th goal, prompting chants of "Geno, Geno, Geno" from the Penguins' 224th consecutive sellout crowd. Kunitz also scored to complete Pittsburgh's highest-scoring game of the season.
It was that kind of night for the Sabres.
"We've got to be better in all areas: 5-on-5, the power play, the penalty kill," said forward Derek Roy, who was upset that Pittsburgh scored on three of its five power plays. "Our penalty kill was horrible. We were letting goals in the whole time."
The Penguins, who already have used 32 players this season, got six points in the first period alone from recent Wilkes-Barre call-ups.
Williams' improbable goal – from beyond the blue line barely two minutes into the game – was much-welcomed by the Penguins, who had been outscored 7-2 while losing their last two home games, to Detroit and Boston.
"The (final) score was the result of way team played right off the hop," Pens coach Dan Bylsma said.
Despres beat Miller on a one-timer from the right circle at 6:07 off deftly executed passes by Tyler Kennedy and Williams – yes, him again – before Malkin took over.
Shortly after Thomas Vanek scored his third in two nights for the Sabres, Malkin broke free on a short breakaway created by Sneep's 120-foot pass that banked perfectly off the side boards to put a backhander past Miller at 17:30. Picard, another call-up, also got an assist.
"First shot , score; second shot, score again," Malkin said. "It was a lucky day for me, and I'm glad."
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