PITTSBURGH — With Sidney Crosby and three of Pittsburgh's top four defensemen sidelined with injuries, Evgeni Malkin has showed time and again that he is capable of taking over a game almost singlehandedly.
He did exactly that against the streaking Chicago Blackhawks, and one of the NHL's hottest scorers gave the resilient Penguins just enough offense to hold off the League's hottest team.
Malkin -- recently mounting a run at another NHL scoring title even without Crosby -- set up all three of Pittsburgh's goals, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury held off a determined Chicago team in the third period for a 3-2 Penguins victory at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night.
Chris Kunitz, James Neal and a previously slumping Tyler Kennedy scored in the first two periods on plays started or created by Malkin, who has boosted his points total to 39 by piling up eight points in his last two games.
Despite a 3-0 lead after the second intermission, a frantic final period made Malkin's production even more vital.
Chicago, roundly outplayed through 40 minutes, surged on the back of early third-period goals by Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg as coach Joel Quenneville shook up his lines in an effort to create some offense. Chicago finished with a 19-4 shot advantage in the third, but the late rally – including a power play as time ran out – wasn't enough.
Malkin showed off his non-scoring abilities in fending off the Hawks, displaying backchecking skills and winning 16 of 24 face-offs for the game.
"Geno has been a force offensively, and also a guy we're counting on to play against other teams' top lines," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's been good at both ends of the rink, making plays and driving. When he's doing that, he's probably going to have 10 scoring chances a game."
Malkin's offensive skills are abundant – as validated by his NHL scoring title in 2008-09 – but he has become more of a two-way player this season while the Penguins have fought through numerous injuries. They played this one without, among others, Crosby and defensemen Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin.
In the six games since Crosby returned to the IR with further concussion-like symptoms, Malkin has six goals and nine assists. The run is reminiscent of made by Malkin when, with Crosby out with a high ankle sprain for nearly seven weeks, he accumulated 60 points during the second half of the 2007-08 season.
"He wants to make plays and he is having success right now," forward Chris Kunitz said. "He is just a dominating player when he wants the puck."
The Blackhawks (21-9-4) – top of the League with 46 points entering the night – lost for the first time in regulation in December (7-1-1).
Malkin's timing couldn't be better, either, as the Penguins – 37-22-8 without Crosby since last season – appeared to be sinking into a where-is-Sid funk by losing four of five.
Malkin ended that with his seventh career hat trick and a five-point night as the Penguins (19-11-4) beat Buffalo 8-3 on Saturday, and he followed that up with another exceptional game against Chicago.
The Penguins are 6-0-3 against the Blackhawks in Pittsburgh since Feb. 22, 1997, when Chicago last won in regulation there.
"They're first in the league, so that's a good test for us," said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who had two assists. "It's a big win for us, two points, and it's a measuring stick, too."
There was a playoff edge to this game, too, as illustrated by the seven power plays the Penguins enjoyed as they built their two-period edge.
That excitement boiled over when Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland appeared to leave his feet while driving Marcus Kruger into the boards at 8:55 of the first. Engelland wasn't penalized, prompting Chicago's John Scott to rush to his teammate's aid.
With Scott in the box for instigating – he also drew a 5-minute fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct penalty -- Malkin's pass from the far blue line found Kunitz in stride just inside the Chicago zone. Kunitz beat goalie Ray Emery -- who had won his last five and was 9-1-2 in his last 12 -- at 10:02 for his third goal in six games.
"I saw my teammate get hit. I thought it was a questionable hit," said Scott. "I'm always going to stand up for my teammates. I'm going to do that every time, no matter who it is."
Quenneville spoke of the momentum shift that took place on the penalty: "To be shorthanded on a play like that, it was a tough turn of events by the end of the night. They got a lot of momentum there."
Early in the second, the Penguins upped the advantage with both teams at full strength. Malkin's lead pass started James Neal and Kunitz on a 2-on-1 break. Neal skated hard to the right circle and -- with Emery guarding the near post -- he ignored an open Kunitz to put a hard wrist shot inside the opposite post for his 19th goal. All but six of those goals have come on home ice.
Kennedy made it 3-0 from the edge of the crease off defenseman Ben Lovejoy's wraparound pass at 16:34 of the second. Lovejoy played 16 minutes in his return from a broken wrist sustained on Nov. 3.
With the Blackhawks constantly marching to the penalty box – Patrick Kane twice went off for hooking – Fleury had an uneventful first two periods.
"We can't do this (fall behind 3-0) against a team like this," Stalberg said. "They're too good and they're going to take advantage."
Chicago got back into it when Toews' backhander deflected off defenseman Matt Niskanen's stick and past Fleury 49 seconds into the third for his 19th goal. Stalberg followed up by scoring at 6:12 and, suddenly, Pittsburgh's comfortable lead had evaporated.
But Fleury didn't let the puck past him again, even when Chicago went on a power play in the final 1:29 created by Neal's third penalty. Emery was pulled, effectively giving Chicago a two-man advantage. Chicago was 0-for-3 on the power play.
"It was a little crazy back there," Fleury said.
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1 - 0 PIT
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