"That Ballard hit really changed the momentum. We were getting outshot pretty bad there. That got the crowd really going, especially on a big star player like Malkin. They're probably the best two players in the league, so when they're on the ice together it's really tough. For Ballard to take out both Malkin and Crosby on the same shift, that's pretty cool."
-- David Booth
A Panthers' victory would draw them into an eighth-place tie with the New York Rangers in their bid to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 1999-00 season. A loss would drastically diminish Florida's chances as the Panthers would have two more losses than the Rangers with only three games to play.
The Penguins, who lost Saturday to the Carolina Hurricanes, needed a win to secure a Stanley Cup Playoff berth and finish no worse than seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. They were 15-2-4 since Feb. 15 under interim head coach Dan Bylsma and hadn't lost two straight games under their new coach.
Skating with his head down, Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's leading scorer, carried the puck up the right boards and into the Florida zone where Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard sent him cart-wheeling with the NHL's hip check of the year. Pittsburgh's captain Sidney Crosby, a better wrestler than fighter, confronted Ballard, took a few shots to the head and then wrestled him to the ice.
Ballard and Crosby received fighting majors and Florida's Bryan McCabe scored on the four-on-four while Crosby was in the box for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he picked up at the same time. The teams played scoreless hockey for over a period before Florida's David Booth scored a power-play goal at 19:48 of the second period while Jordan Staal was sitting out a holding penalty.
"That Ballard hit really changed the momentum. We were getting outshot pretty bad there," Booth said. "That got the crowd really going, especially on a big star player like Malkin. They're probably the best two players in the league, so when they're on the ice together it's really tough. For Ballard to take out both Malkin and Crosby on the same shift, that's pretty cool."
Pittsburgh's Mark Eaton scored a power-play goal at 14:06 of the third period while Radek Dvorak was serving a high-sticking double minor but Ville Peltonen got the insurance goal back at 15:56 with a wrist shot that beat Marc-Andre Fleury.
Crosby and Malkin, the first- and third-leading scorers in the NHL, were held pointless for the second game in a row. Ballard's teammates and a few Penguins agreed his hit on Malkin was the turning point.
"We definitely didn't play the way we played in the first (after the hit on Malkin)," Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said.
Crosby thought Ballard hit Malkin lower on the leg than he actually did and went after him, throwing punches in front of Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun.
"It was pretty low," Crosby said. "I know (Ballard) is known for hip-checking guys and he has a physical style to his game, but (Malkin) is 6-feet-3. He doesn't need to hit him at the knees. I understand if it's a guy my size (5-feet-11) and he hits me in the hips, but he got pretty low on him."
Gonchar, a father figure to Malkin, agreed with Crosby.
"In my opinion, it was kind of low," Gonchar said. "You have to be smart about those hits."
But Ballard defended his check and explained how Malkin lost his concentration and left himself vulnerable.
"The puck bounced on him a little bit and he looked down for it," Ballard said. "He's not someone you feel you have lined up very often. He's pretty shifty, skilled, and has that big reach. But he had his head down, and I tried to come in and get him with his head down."
Ballard said he expected a response from one of the Penguins.
"After a hit like that, you've got to figure somebody's coming," Ballard said. "(Crosby) came to me and dropped his gloves. ... He's an intense player, competitive. At that point of the game, it was probably the right thing for him to do."
"We knew they were going to battle hard," Crosby said. "They're battling very hard. That's what we expected."
Vokoun stopped 41 of 43 shots while Fleury had 22 saves on 26 shots.
The Panthers are tied with the Rangers with 89 points but they have one less victory, giving the Rangers the tie-breaker. Florida plays at Philadelphia Tuesday and at Atlanta Thursday before returning home to conclude the regular season Saturday against the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals. The Rangers host the Montreal Canadiens, who are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 92 points, on Tuesday and the Flyers on Thursday before concluding the season Sunday in Philadelphia.