PITTSBURGH - The Tampa Bay Lightning's playoff fate still hasn't been determined, but this much is certain: If they don't see Evgeni Malkin again until next season, they probably won't mind.
Malkin, compared favorably to Mario Lemieux only two weeks ago by coach Guy Boucher, had his third consecutive big game against the Lightning, Jordan Staal scored a pair of special teams goals and the Penguins crushed Tampa Bay 8-1 on Saturday at Consol Energy Center.
Malkin's three goals and an assist gave him 77 points, putting him four ahead of Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. And the Penguins' two points pushed them past idle New Jersey for fourth place in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Stamkos was held off the score sheet and ended the season series with no goals and two assists in four games. He has been limited to three goals in 16 career games against Pittsburgh.
As far as Penguins' fans go, a day at the rink doesn't get much better than this, and many in the sellout crowd of 18,596 responded by serenading Malkin with chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P".
"I'm trying not to think about my points, when you start to think it's a little bit too much in your head," said Malkin, the Art Ross Trophy winner in 2009. "I just think about my game, what I do right and not."
All of Malkin's goals during his ninth career hat trick and second in six weeks against Tampa Bay came after goalie Dwayne Roloson gave him a face wash as the two became tangled in the crease about eight minutes into the second period and the Penguins up 3-0. Malkin responded by taking a swipe at Roloson, and both players drew roughing penalties.
"He was coming to the net hard and it ticked me off, I'm trying to defend my area and he knows that as well as I did," Roloson said. "We had a good laugh about it afterward."
Might not be a good idea these days, getting Malkin mad and motivated.
"I'm a little bit mad because it's not my fault, the defenseman cross-checked my back and I lose my balance. I don't know why he punched me," Malkin said.
Malkin kicked his game into another gear after that, and he glared at Roloson after scoring on a bad-angle shot from along the goal line later in the period that made it 5-0.
"After I scored, he saw my face," Malkin said.
And Malkin wasn't done, not nearly. Early in the third, he scored again on a breakaway that started with a drop pass from James Neal as Malkin was gathering speed in the Penguins' zone and ended with a series of twisting, turning moves that left defenders Brett Clark and Adam Hall flailing helplessly at Malkin.
One of the NHL's best goals this season, for sure. Was it also one of the best of the 194 goals Malkin has scored in his career?
"Maybe, yes, I don't know," said Malkin, who celebrated the goal with several animated fist pumps. "It looked good, I think."
Malkin finished up his four-point day with his 36th goal of the season later in the third, giving him 21 goals in his last 22 games.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged Malkin can be a handful when he's motivated.
"He has a rare combination of size, speed and skill that's tough to handle," Bylsma said. "He can dazzle with his speed and skill."
Boucher, not happy with any aspect of the Lightning's game, didn't spend any time praising Malkin afterward, as he did when Malkin scored twice during Pittsburgh's 4-2 win on Feb. 12.
"Their goalie stoned us for the first two periods and we couldn't get any wind," said Boucher, whose team plays Sunday at New Jersey. "We out chanced them in the first period and it's 3-0 for the opponent. It was tough for our guys to take. … We had four breakaways and we don't score once."
As good as Malkin and Staal were – and they were very good -- Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury also enjoyed one of his best games of the season by making 33 saves.
Fleury, who beat the conference-leading New York Rangers 2-0 on Tuesday night, missed a chance for his first career back-to-back shutouts when Teddy Purcell scored on a power play late in the second -- his fourth goal in five games.
Before that, Fleury made a succession of exceptional stops – Stamkos on a short breakaway early in the second period, Brett Connolly from in front on the same shift, Trevor Smith from the slot a few minutes later.
"This game could have had a different look if he didn't make four or five spectacular saves. He played remarkable," Bylsma said.
Fleury (32-14-3) has played in 31 of the last 33 games, and Bylsma is weighing whether to sit him down and give rookie Brad Thiessen his first NHL start Sunday against Columbus. This performance may make it more difficult for Bylsma to rest Fleury, who is 13-2-1 in his last 16 starts.
For the Lightning, there's been no shutting down Malkin since he was held without a point when Tampa Bay won 4-1 on Nov. 17. In the three other series matchups, all Pittsburgh wins, Malkin has seven goals and three assists during three consecutive multiple-goal efforts. The Lightning have been outscored 25-5 while dropping their last four regular-season games in Pittsburgh.
Malkin helped get the Penguins going in their fifth win in seven games by setting up Chris Kunitz's goal at 11:09 of the first on a sequence that began with Roloson breaking his stick while poke-checking the puck off Neal's stick. Neal and Steve Sullivan had three assists each.
Matt Cooke scored 50 seconds later to make it 2-0, a familiar scenario for the Lightning, who yielded two power-play goals in a 72-second span while falling behind by four goals in a 4-3 loss at Winnipeg 4-3 on Thursday.
Staal effectively put the game away with his 20th and 21st goals, scoring unassisted on a short-handed breakaway at 14:40 of the first and on a power play near the midpoint of the second period. Of Staal's 21 goals, eight are on special teams.
Malkin, of course, is capable of being special no matter the occasion or situation -- especially against Tampa Bay.