MONTREAL – To win consistently in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a team needs its best players to step up when things are not going right.
Tuesday night, at a raucous Bell Centre, against an upset-minded Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins looked ripe for the taking. They were flat in the first period, managing just three shots. They were missing two key forwards – Jordan Staal and Bill Guerin – because of injury and they were facing a goalie, Montreal's Jaroslav Halak, in the mythical groove that sometimes wins an underdog not only games, but rounds, against far superior opponents.
It appeared to be the perfect recipe for disaster for the defending champions as the game stretched into the third period without a goal. That is, until Pittsburgh's best players -- goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby -- decided that it wasn't and turned a date with disaster into a 2-0 victory that gives Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
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Malkin scored the game-winning goal on the power play just 76 seconds into the third period, thanks to an assist from Gonchar and a timely screen from Crosby. Fleury made it stand up with a succession of stellar saves in the third period – including highlight reel stops on Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec in 18-save performance that gave the man the Penguins call "Flower" his first shutout of this postseason.
"He proved himself today that he was the goalie, Pittsburgh forward Max Talbot said. "He made the big save like we needed him to. That's the Flower we like to have and he's awesome."
Malkin is pretty awesome when he wants to be, as well. Remember, he is the defending Conn Smythe Trophy holder as playoff MVP after a scintillating 24-game run through the 2009 postseason that netted him 36 points.
He has been less than stellar far too often for his own tastes this postseason -- but not on this night. On this night, Malkin does what great players do: He changed the complexion of this game with one moment of brilliance.
That moment came just 76 seconds into the third period when he slipped to the left side of Montreal's penalty-killing box and put himself in position to accept a perfect pass from power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar. Suddenly, Malkin had the game on his stick and he didn't flinch, slapping home a cannon of a shot that was aided in its path past Halak by the screen provided by Crosby in the low slot.
"Geno, another huge clutch goal for us," Talbot said, shaking his head and smiling.
Crosby earned the power-play opportunity in question with his own moment of brilliance late in the second period. The Pittsburgh captain, mired in a slump, was on for almost the final two minutes of the second period. Late in that shift, Crosby forced defenseman Hal Gill to commit a holding penalty to counter a hard cycle.
Pittsburgh went into the dressing room determined to make the most of the gift their captain had provided them despite failing on the first two power plays of the night.
"First two power plays, we played not very good," Malkin said. "After second period, we talked a lot and we just moved the puck. Quick move of puck opened net and just shoot. Not too hard. Just move puck."
That's exactly what they did. And, like Gonchar, Crosby was in the middle of all the good things that happened on the game-winning goal sequence.
"He was up to the task at both ends of the rink," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think he's pretty happy with the way he played, even though he didn't get a point."
Pittsburgh did not generate any more offense against Halak, who finished with 24 saves, after Malkin's goal. But Fleury's goaltending made the lead stand up until Pascal Dupuis hit the empty net with 15 seconds remaining.
Fleury had not been a game-changing goalie much in his first eight starts this postseason. On this night, his team needed him to be perfect -- and perfect he was.
"He was great for us," Gonchar said. "In the game, at the beginning, we didn't have a good start, but he was there when we needed him. And in the third, when they had a power play, he made a couple of unbelievable saves. It's one of those games, when you look at it, that maybe he's the guy that gave us a chance to win."
It was Fleury at times and it was Malkin, Crosby and Gonchar at others. Simply, it was Pittsburgh's best players standing up and being counted.
Now it is Montreal's turn to find an answer, to counter Pittsburgh's statement in Game 3. That opportunity will come in Thursday's Game 4, back here at Bell Centre, when Montreal will either make this a best-of-three series -- or trudge back to Pittsburgh facing elimination for the fourth time in this postseason.
"I don't think we're too disappointed with the way we played or with our effort," Cammalleri said. "I'd have to sit back and look at it more, but I think if we can all be a little bit better, and it's not that much, but a little bit better than maybe we get the one goal instead of them."
Shift of the night: Sidney Crosby took the ice with just under two minutes left in the second period and never went back to the bench, dominating for nearly every second of the 113 he was on the ice. In the sequence, during which he played with a variety of wingers, Crosby was denied on a 20-foot wrister before drawing a holding penalty on Hal Gill with a strong cycle. On the ensuing faceoff, Crosby won a draw against Scott Gomez to set up a prime chance by Evgeni Malkin. The period ended with Crosby and Gomez exchanging pushes in a wild melee to end the period and allow Pittsburgh to enjoy 1:49 of PP time to open the third and led to the Penguins' first goal.