PITTSBURGH -- The goals are coming in rapid bursts, the wins are piling up faster than in any season in 20 years. With their skilled players and exceptional depth, these are good times for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they can only wonder how long they will last.
With Evgeni Malkin streaking toward a likely scoring title, Sidney Crosby back on the ice and back on his game and the Penguins assured of a sixth consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance, they clearly won't be satisfied with playing just in April -- or in May.
Seizing a two-goal lead with less than five minutes gone, and with Malkin keeping his scoring surge going with his sixth and seventh goals in five games, the Penguins made quick work of the Nashville Predators by winning 5-1 Thursday night at Consol Energy Center to become the third team to officially clinch a playoff berth.
Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz also scored and James Neal had four assists for the Penguins, who won their ninth in a row at home and improved to 13-0-1 in their last 14 games to close to within one point of the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division races.
Pittsburgh is an NHL-best 25-4-2 since Jan. 13 -- raising the question that's being asked across the NHL: Are the Penguins now the NHL's best team?
"This team is capable of great things," Dupuis said.
The Penguins are rolling toward the playoffs amid their best late-season run since they won 17 in a row during their 56-win season in 1992-93. They need only four wins in their final nine games for the second 50-win season in franchise history.
They've also moved into the NHL scoring lead – they have 244 goals – by scoring at least five times in all but one of their last six games.
"I don't think many teams are going to outscore their team," Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. "They've got a lot of firepower. It should have been all the more reason for us to focus on defense first but for some reason that wasn't the case. And you saw how fast they can score goals."
With Russian star Alexander Radulov playing his first game for the Predators since a Game 6 playoff loss to Detroit in 2008 – he scored their only goal – this had the makings of an exceptional late-season interconference matchup. Nashville was 9-4-1 in its last 14 games and was only one point behind fourth-place Detroit in the Western Conference.
But the game got away from the Predators in a hurry as Malkin scored on Pittsburgh's first shot of the game with 1:23 gone, a knuckleball-like shot from the left circle that deflected off goalie Pekka Rinne's glove.
"It hit my glove and ended up in my net; obviously you would like to get that back for sure," Rinne said. "It's a tough way to start the game -- the first shot and it's in the back of your net. It kind of knuckled, and he's one of the better players in the world and he teed it up a few times tonight and put power on it. Obviously I have to be better, but you have to respect that guy's skill, too."
Dupuis followed with his 22nd of the season less than three minutes later by redirecting Kris Letang's shot from the left point. Cooke made it 3-0 at 1:58 of the second period after Malkin forced a turnover, a skill that coach Dan Bylsma said is an often-overlooked facet of Malkin's game.
Just like that, it was over.
Rinne was pulled after giving up three goals on seven shots during a 6-3 loss to Edmonton on Tuesday, but he stayed in this time despite giving up two goals on the first three shots and three goals on the first nine shots.
Pittsburgh later went up by four when Kunitz's wrist shot deflected off Weber's right skate and into the net 7:35 into the second.
Radulov chose to jump into the Predators' lineup immediately, only days after his Kontinental Hockey League season ended and he elected to return to the NHL, and he didn't disappoint. He went hard to the net, scooped up the carom of Hal Gill's shot after it deflected off Dupuis and Brooks Orpik and put a wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury at 12:01 of the second.
"I had a few mistakes, and the next game will be better," said Radulov, who had two shots, two hits and was a minus-2 in 15:54 of ice time. "I think we have a good team, and that's the bottom line. Against teams like Pittsburgh, when you have on a line Crosby and Malkin and Neal, those guys, you cannot make any mistakes like we did."
The Predators twice couldn't put the puck into an open net after they fell behind 3-0 – "It would have been a different game," Radulov said – and that was too big of a lead to give to Fleury. He made 29 saves while winning his League-high 40th – one more than Rinne.
"His play in net is a real big reason why we have 46 wins," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's been outstanding. He gave our team confidence early in season when we had injuries. … It's no mistake that he's gotten to 40 wins faster than anyone else."
Malkin finished it off early in the third period with a slap shot from the left circle that flew past Rinne's glove, giving Malkin back-to-back two-goal games and seven goals in the five games since Crosby returned from his 40-game injury layoff a week ago. Crosby didn't score, but Pittsburgh still finished 13-2-3 against the Western Conference.
"You want that kind of momentum going into the playoffs," Crosby said of the Penguins' recent surge.
Malkin now has 95 points, leaving him five short of his third 100-point season. He is two goals behind his career high of 47 in 2007-08, and he doesn't want to stop there.
"I want to score 50 goals," Malkin said.
With the playoffs only a few weeks away, can Malkin and the Penguins (46-21-6) play any better than this?
"I think we can. We've just keep doing the right things. Playing better is being consistent and doing the right things," Neal said. "That would be playing better for us. Every line is playing good, and we need to keep that going in the playoffs."
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