Malkin, Fleury lead Pens past Rangers
Tuesday, 02.21.2012 / 9:44 PMPITTSBURGH --
A turnover and a deftly executed bank pass off the boards created one of those snapshot moments that will likely be remembered after the NHL season ends.
Just like that, Evgeni Malkin
, the NHL scoring leader and a top candidate for the MVP award, found himself loose on a breakaway against Henrik Lundqvist
, the elite goalie who has been nearly unbeatable of late and is another prime Hart Trophy contender.
This time, Malkin got the goal and, largely because he did, the Pittsburgh Penguins
earned a badly needed victory against the rival New York Rangers
, who had been tormenting them for more than a year on their own ice.
Malkin's fourth goal in as many games against the Rangers gave the Penguins an early lead, Steve Sullivan
added a power-play goal and Marc-Andre Fleury
made 27 saves as Pittsburgh stopped a five-game home ice losing streak against New York by winning 2-0 at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night.
Malkin also picked up his 400th career assist on Sullivan's goal, giving him a League-high 73 points and helping the Penguins bounce back from a 6-2 loss Sunday at Buffalo that might have been their worst effort of the season. This was one of their best.
Since losing seven of their first eight this season against the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins have won four of five with two wins against the Rangers. New York has only two other regulation losses in division play (11-4-1) all season.
"It's a big two points for us. It's what we wanted to do -- beat teams that we weren't able to beat early in the season," defenseman Kris Letang
The Penguins, inching to within eight points of the conference leaders, hadn't beaten the Rangers in Pittsburgh since Nov. 28, 2009, when they still played at Mellon Arena. New York had been 4-0 in Consol.
"It's important to make sure in our minds that we're able to beat these guys," Letang said.
Or, as coach Dan Bylsma said, "We play them two more times, and we want to make a statement with every game, every shift we play against them."
Fleury, who tied Tom Barrasso's team record with his 22nd career shutout, and Malkin made it in this one.
"It means a lot to me," Fleury said of the record. "I've been fortunate to play for good teams and they've helped me get it. They helped me out a lot, (they) blocked shots and cleared rebounds."
Scoring the first goal is almost imperative in beating the Rangers, who are 28-1-2 when they score first, and Malkin provided it as the Penguins won their seventh in their last eight home games.
The Penguins came out hard during a first period in which they pressured so often while controlling play in the Rangers' end that New York coach John Tortorella called his timeout midway through the period.
Despite not scoring in the opening 20 minutes, Pittsburgh carried that strong play and momentum in the second period, and Malkin needed only 65 seconds to convert it into his 33rd goal. He scored twice as the Penguins won 4-1 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 19.
Defenseman Michael Del Zotto
turned the puck over while being pressured, allowing Letang to chip a pass off the wall that found an undefended Malkin in stride. Malkin cut across the slot and lifted a perfectly placed backhander over Lundqvist's glove hand for his sixth goal in 10 games this month and his first in four games.
A superlative goal against a superlative goalie. Lundqvist came in with an 8-1 record, a microscopic 1.20 goals-against average, a .955 save percentage and three shutouts in his previous nine games.
Tortorella certainly didn't blame his goalie.
"It was a dumb play by Michael Del Zotto
-- you just can't throw a backhand flipper into the middle of the ice, and another one of our d-men up the ice with him late in as shift," Tortorella said. "We just lose our patience. We gathered ourselves in the first period, but we start the second period by throwing a backhand bomb in the middle to no one, and they capitalized."
Malkin didn't speak to reporters after the game, but defenseman Zbynek Michalek
said, "We like our chances there. He was playing great. He made a great move and ended up scoring the game-winning goal. It was a huge play."
Later in the period, Sullivan made certain Fleury wouldn't have to nurse a one-goal lead through what became his third shutout this season.
With defenseman Marc Staal
off for tripping Chris Kunitz
, the Penguins converted on their first power play. Malkin made a short pass to Sullivan a few feet inside the blue line, and he teed up a shot from the right point that eluded Lundqvist as Matt Cooke
screened him in front at 11:14.
"They always feel like a fast team," Lundqvist said. "It was tough for us to get going, to get pucks out. We got better as the game moved on, but they had a couple of good plays in the second."
Sullivan's 10th goal was his first in 10 games, and it was all Fleury needed for his 31st win and his 12th in his last 15 starts, a stretch in which the Penguins have picked up 25 points. Despite the win, the Penguins remained in sixth place in the conference standings as division rivals Philadelphia and New Jersey both won.
The second period also was Fleury's best as he made strong saves against Artem Anisimov
, Derek Stepan
and Marian Gaborik
"I thought we had some chances to get back in it, but we couldn't finish against Fleury," said Tortorella, whose team was 0-for-3 on the power play. "Gabby had a breakaway, we had a couple of good chances."
Lundqvist, who made 29 saves, had lost only once in nine starts since that Jan. 19 defeat to Pittsburgh.
"I don't know what was missing," Lundqvist said. "They felt like they always do, an aggressive team and a smart team."
And a team the Rangers are assured of seeing – perhaps many more times – in the next few months.