It's hard to believe it's possible for anyone to play better than Evgeni Malkin
has in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Malkin has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Pittsburgh Penguins
, who are on the brink of sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes
and becoming the first runner-up to return to the Stanley Cup Final since Edmonton did it 25 years ago.
The NHL's regular-season scoring leader has 6 goals and 3 assists for 9 points in the first three games against the Hurricanes, including his first career hat trick in Game 2. The 6 goals are one fewer than Carolina has managed as a team.
Malkin's 28 points are the most of anyone in this year's playoffs; his 12 goals are second only to teammate Sidney Crosby
. He's had at least two points in each of his last six games, a feat last accomplished by Buffalo's Dale Hawerchuk
16 years ago -- and has 16 points during the streak.
The big test for Malkin will come if the Penguins can win one more game to make the Final -- he struggled in last year's championship round against Detroit. But he's the biggest reason the Penguins are poised to get the chance to avenge last year's loss.
— Four players who had a good week:
-- Malkin's been brilliant, but so has Crosby. Pittsburgh's captain leads all playoff scorers with 14 goals and has gotten most of them the same way he scored in Game 3 against Carolina on Saturday night -- driving to the net.
-- Yes, Osgood has a superb team in front of him. But the 36-year-old netminder has been solid all spring for Detroit and has the defending champion Red Wings one win away from a return trip to the Final.
-- Hossa has had his ups and downs during the playoffs, but he's on an up cycle as the Wings close in on a return trip to the Final. He had a pair of assists in Game 3, then scored twice and set up another goal in Sunday's 6-1 win at Chicago.
-- Pittsburgh's decision to acquire Guerin at the trade deadline continues to pay dividends. He had two assists in Game 2 against Carolina, then added a power-play goal and a brilliant assist to fuel Pittsburgh's 6-2 win in Game 3. He has 13 points and is plus-10 in 16 playoff games.
— Four players who didn't:
-- Carolina's big gun hasn't been firing against Pittsburgh. He has just one assist in three games against Pittsburgh while going minus-6, and hasn't scored in the Hurricanes' last six games.
-- While fellow young gun Jonathan Toews
has found a way to score against Detroit, Kane has done nothing for Chicago in the first four games of the Western Finals. He has just one assist and is minus-7 in four games, while taking only five shots.
-- Ward has given it his all against Pittsburgh, but he's been under siege for three games, allowing 14 goals. He gave up a career-worst six in Game 2, then was beaten five more times in Game 3.
-- "Homer" is making a nuisance of himself in front of Chicago's net, just as he did against Anaheim and Columbus, but he hasn't been putting up anything on the scoresheet. Holmstrom is pointless in his last 11 games and has only one shot in four games against Chicago.
Injuries, news and notes:
— Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom
missed the first playoff game of his career on Sunday with a lower-body injury. He had played in 228 consecutive postseason games. His absence gave Chris Chelios
the chance to play for the first time in the series. Wings center Pavel Datsyuk
missed Games 3 and 4 with a sore foot after being injured in Game 2. Another Detroit center, Kris Draper
, missed Game 4 with a groin injury sustained in Game 3. … Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin
left Game 3 after the second period with a lower-body injury and hasn't played since. Cristobal Huet
took over and was the winning goaltender in Game 3, but was routed in Game 4.
— Carolina forward Tuomo Ruutu
returned for Game 3 on Saturday after missing Game 2 with lower-body injury. … Chicago forward Martin Havlat
was back in the lineup for Game 4 against Detroit after leaving Game 3 in the first period when he was flattened by a check from Niklas Kronwall
-- Detroit forward Tomas Kopecky
will be out of the lineup for the remainder of the playoffs with facial injuries sustained in the second round against Anaheim that have yet to heal.
-- Boston forward Phil Kessel
, a restricted free agent, underwent shoulder surgery last week. Forward David Krejci
will have hip surgery. Both could miss the start of next season. Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference
will have surgery this summer. GM Peter Chiarelli says he has a torn groin, a bruised pelvis and a hernia. … Montreal defenseman Mathieu Schneider
had arthroscopic shoulder surgery to fix an injury sustained on April 4. Canadiens forward Maxim Lapierre
had successful surgery to repair an ankle injury that hampered him for most of the season. He's expected to be ready for training camp. … Washington defenseman Mike Green
played with a sore shoulder throughout the playoffs, but the Caps say he's not expected to need surgery. … Flyers officials say center Daniel Briere
's eye surgery was a success. … St. Louis defenseman Erik Johnson
, who missed the entire season with a knee injury that required surgery, is close to being healthy. The No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft would give the Blues a big lift if he's completely recovered.
Games to watch:
Pittsburgh at Carolina (May 26) -- The Hurricanes will try to avoid the embarrassment of being swept out of the playoffs in their home building.
Chicago at Detroit (May 27) -- The Hawks face the tough task of trying to extend the Western Conference Finals by winning at Joe Louis Arena, a place where the Red Wings have lost just once in eight games this spring.