PITTSBURGH -- Hours before game time, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher praised Penguins star Evgeni Malkin for being Mario Lemieux-like, calling him "gigantic" and a "monster."
This is why.
Malkin followed up a five-point performance against Winnipeg with yet another exceptional game, scoring twice to give him an NHL-leading 69 points, and Pittsburgh's top line was dominant again during a 4-2 victory against Tampa Bay at the Consol Energy Center on Sunday night.
"He's playing dominating hockey," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Malkin, who has at least one goal in eight consecutive home games. "It's been pretty spectacular."
Malkin almost got a hat trick, missing by inches of putting the puck into an empty net in the final second.
The Penguins matched a season-high by winning their sixth in a row at home – and they've come from behind in each one. They trailed once by three goals, three times by two goals – including each of the last two days – and twice by a goal. And all but two of the comebacks occurred in the third period.
Having a player like Malkin allows a team to do that.
Malkin has five goals and two assists in his last two games against the Lightning, including a five-point effort during Pittsburgh's 6-3 win at Tampa Bay on Jan. 15.
Asked what a team can do right now to slow down Malkin, Boucher said, "We certainly didn't have the answer. You'll have to ask somebody other than me."
Steve Downie scored twice in a team-record span of 11 seconds midway through the first period, yet – just like the Jets on Saturday at Consol – the Lightning couldn't hold a two-goal lead. Tampa Bay had been 7-1-2 since the Jan. 15 loss, the NHL’s best record during that time.
"We certainly didn't look like that," said Boucher, whose team began the night eight points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
The Malkin line was the big reason why the Lightning quickly let the lead slip away. Chris Kunitz also scored and had two assists, giving him seven points in two games, and James Neal had three assists. The Penguins’ front line combined for eight points and has figured in 45 of the team’s last 83 goals.
Defenseman Kris Letang, whose return from a two-month concussion layoff has coincided with the Penguins' recent surge, also had a goal and two assists to finish off a six-point weekend.
Malkin has replaced the injured Sidney Crosby as the Penguins' No. 1 center and, one season after Crosby was being hailed as the best player in hockey during a career year offensively, now is hearing such praise himself.
Playing at a level he last flashed while winning the Art Ross Trophy and the Conn Smythe Award during the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run, Malkin illustrated that with his 31st and 32nd goals of the season. He has 10 goals and 7 assists as Pittsburgh has gone 8-2-1 in its last 10.
"It looks like he did in 2009 when Sid went down (for seven weeks with a high ankle sprain) and he kind of took over," Letang said. "That was kind of unbelievable. But his game is better than it was (three) years ago. I think he's playing great hockey, and this is the first time I've seen him being that dominant."
Letang senses that sitting out the second half of last season with two torn knee ligaments refocused Malkin and made him determined to be special again. Malkin already was done for the season at this time a year ago after having a career-low 15 goals in 43 games.
"It makes me think he missed playing hockey," Letang said. "He came out this season in shape ready to go, and you could see it in his eyes that he was pretty confident."
Malkin, seemingly creating scoring chances on every shift, was easily the best player on the ice in a game that included three of the NHL's four leading goal scorers – Steven Stamkos, Malkin and Neal.
"Every time he's on the ice, it feels like he's got a chance to score a goal or make a play," Kunitz said. "It's definitely fun being out there."
Stamkos, the League leader with 37 goals, was held off the score sheet against a team that has limited him to three goals in 15 career regular-season meetings – his lowest total against any Eastern Conference opponent. Stamkos had scored in his previous four games and had five goals during a six-game scoring streak.
Tampa Bay got off to a promising start in its first game in Pittsburgh since winning Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals there in April.
Downie scored off a knuckleball-like shot from the left point at 9:58 of the first and, after a faceoff win, beat Brent Johnson again from the right post off a tricky pass from Teddy Purcell at 10:09 to make it 2-0. Downie broke the Lightning record for fastest goals in succession, set by Jason Wiemer in a 16-second span on Oct. 3, 1997.
Johnson bounced back to turn aside 21 shots and gain his third win of the season and first since Dec. 3. Marc-Andre Fleury had earned the Penguins’ previous 15 wins.
Malkin started the Penguins' latest comeback with a one-timer from the right circle off Letang's pass at 16:15 of the first, a power play goal created by Stamkos' holding penalty.
Kunitz, who had four points during the 8-5 win over Winnipeg on Saturday, tied it in the opening minute of the second period. He split two defenders before switching from his backhand to his forehand to beat Mathieu Garon, who had been 6-0-2 in his previous eight starts.
Less than four minute later, Letang put the Penguins ahead by snapping off a shot from the edge of the right circle that deflected off Garon's glove. Malkin finished off a three-goal period, and the comeback, by redirecting Kunitz's pass by Garon at 10:54.
"Their first line was all over the place in that period," Garon said.
Malkin and Neal each have eight-game home ice goal-scoring streaks this season, tying them with Marian Gaborik, Alex Ovechkin and Simon Gagne for the NHL's longest run since 2005-06. Only Lemieux has a longer streak for the Penguins, 11 games in 1996.
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