Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor
PITTSBURGH -- Maybe the Carolina Hurricanes should have left Evgeni Malkin alone in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Early in the second period of Thursday night's game at Mellon Arena, Carolina's Scott Walker felled Malkin with a clean -- but dangerous -- hip check. At the time, the game was tied 3-3, but Carolina seemed to have a good dose of momentum after erasing two one-goal leads.
But suddenly Malkin was angry at the Walker hit, as well as some intimidation tactics by other Hurricanes, particularly Chad LaRose. So Malkin did what he does best -- he took over the game with his all-world talent, scoring the final two goals of his first hat trick in the third period to lead Pittsburgh to a 7-4 victory and 2-0 series lead.
Maybe the Hurricanes thought laying the body on Malkin -- doing things like delivering an extra shove after the whistle -- would make him go into one of the slumbers that have been a main source of criticism since he joined the League.
Nobody has ever denied Malkin his talent. However, there have been questions about his willingness to play through the hard areas of the ice -- especially when he struggled offensively in the Stanley Cup Final last year.
But on this night, nobody was questioning Malkin's will.
"He wanted to be out there," forward Max Talbot said. "Even when the game was chippy, he wanted to be a part of that."
"That's the way you want to react," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said of Malkin's offensive outburst, which also included an assist on Talbot's game-tying goal in the second period. "If anything, you want to use it as motivation to play. There are times when it might frustrate you, but you can't let it show -- especially in the playoffs. So that's the best way to do it, and he proved that tonight."
Malkin, who already had a goal and an assist before the Walker hit, finished with four points in the contest and now has a playoff-high 25 points -- including 13 in the last five games.
Afterward, Malkin tried to downplay his contribution, although he had to admit that he found it "awesome" when the sold-out Mellon Arena crowd littered the ice with hats after his third -- and most spectacular goal -- made it 6-4 with 7:35 left in the game.
"It's just one game," Malkin said. "I try to play every game and smart."
On his third goal, Malkin did both, single-handedly beating all six Carolina players on the ice. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma explained what happened as well as anybody after Malkin won an offensive-zone draw from Matt Cullen to start the sequence.
"It's called the 'Geno' for a reason," Bylsma said, suggesting the faceoff win, which Malkin pushed forward into the corner, was a set play. "He pushed through, and he went and got (the puck) himself. After that, he takes it to the net, gets it on his backhand, and there's not a lot of room there where he played. There's not many players in the world that can make a play like that."
But Malkin is one of those players. He left Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg in his wake as he circled behind the net and came out to the left of Cam Ward. With everyone expecting Malkin to go to turn and get the puck onto his forehand, the Russian center kept it on his backhand and threaded a top-shelf shot between the short-side post and Ward's elbow.
"That was a special goal," Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin said.
But will it be the goal that breaks Carolina's back?
The Hurricanes dropped a one-goal decision in Game 1 and believed they could win Game 2 -- something they've done in each of their last five series -- to take the series back to Carolina all even.
It didn't happen -- largely because of Malkin.
"We're going to have to do a little better carrying momentum at different times of the game," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "When we do have it going, it will be important for us.
"They did what they needed to do. They won their two games on home ice. We'll have to do the same now. That's our job."
A big part of that job will be countering Pittsburgh's big guns -- especially Malkin, who has 4 goals and 2 assists in two games against Carolina.
Crosby, for one, does not envy the Hurricanes as they tackle that particular challenge.
"There's not too many guys that can take their game to another level, but he can," Crosby said. "It's a huge boost for us when he does."
For the second-straight game, Pittsburgh used a second-period power play to change the tide of the game. This time, it was Carolina's Matt Cullen in the box for high-sticking Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh dominated for the full two minutes, firing six shots against Cam Ward and wearing out Carolina's penalty killers. Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz had two shots each.
Patrick Eaves had just two shifts in the first two periods as Carolina went with only three lines for much of the game. But on his first shift of the third period, Eaves one-timed a shot from the slot past Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the game at 4-4.
Sidney Crosby's game-opening goal came on his first shift of the game, just 1:51 into the contest. It was his sixth game-opening goal of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, tying the record held by Chicago's Bobby Hull (1962) and Edmonton's Fernando Pisani (2006).
Pittsburgh has outshot its opponent in 11 consecutive playoff games, a club record. In Game 2, Pittsburgh had a 42-28 advantage in shots against the Hurricanes.
Carolina tried to get Matt Cullen's line against Sidney Crosby throughout Game 2, but Cullen took a pair of penalties against Crosby to tilt that competition heavily in Pittsburgh's favor. Cullen high-sticked Crosby in the second period and tripped him in the third.