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Malkin leads Pens to 4-3 OT win vs. Caps

by Alan Robinson / NHL.com
PITTSBURGH -- Alex Ovechkin's exceptional all-around game reminded everyone in Consol Energy Center why he was widely considered to be hockey's best player not that long ago.
 
But it still wasn't good enough to top the player that Ovechkin says is now the NHL's best,  Evgeni Malkin.
 
The Russian stars had a goal and two assists each, but it was Malkin's opportunistic goal in overtime and a pair of James Neal goals that he created that rallied the Pittsburgh Penguins past Ovechkin's Washington Capitals 4-3 on Sunday afternoon.
 
Malkin scored off a rebound of Neal's shot from the left point that deflected off Paul Martin in front and struck the end boards before finding Malkin's stick 1:31 into overtime. Malkin immediately lifted it over a scrambling Michal Neuvirth for his League-leading seventh game-winner.
 
The Penguins not only won a season-high sixth in a row, they stopped an eight-game home ice losing streak against Washington; no team has beaten them nine straight times in Pittsburgh.
 
And it's all because there's no stopping Malkin and Neal, who had two goals and an assist as the Penguins extended their longest winning streak since they won 10 in a row early last season. Malkin has 13 points during a run that followed a six-game Pittsburgh losing streak.
 
"I have great confidence now, you know?," said Malkin, who  has nine goals during the winning streak – seven in the third period or overtime. "You win six games, I think everyone has great confidence
now. I just am enjoying the game, you know? And having fun."
 
So did Ovechkin, who also had a big hit in the corner on defenseman Zbynek Michalek that gave the Capitals a mental lift after they fell behind 2-0 in the first.
 
But, right now, it's difficult to keep up with Malkin in the can-you-top-this department.
 
"He's an elite player, and to find that puck coming off the back boards so quick to get it in ..." Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "Neuvy was coming hard. Most guys would have taken an extra second (to shoot) and then he (Neuvirth) would have had it."
 
Said Neuvirth: "They got a lucky bounce at the end. It hit the boards and, very unexpected, it's a goal for him."
 
Of course, Ovechkin has seen all this before from Malkin, his former Russian Olympic teammate and longtime NHL adversary.
 
The only other time Malkin scored in six consecutive games was at the start of his career in 2006.
 
"He played great and he controls the game so well right now," Ovechkin said of Malkin, who has a NHL-leading 58 points despite missing seven games to injury. "Without (the injured Sidney) Crosby, this team is good, but it's not that good. But he handles it (the pressure) pretty well. Everything goes well for him right now."
 
Kris Letang and Neal scored in the opening six minutes, but the Capitals -- held to four shots in the first -- surged back to take a 3-2 lead 68 seconds into the third on Ovechkin's 20th goal and his 11th in his last nine games in Pittsburgh.
 
Ovechkin, the former Art Ross Trophy-winner who began the day in an uncharacteristic 46th place in the League scoring, added two assists during his first three-point game since April 6 against Florida.
 
But the lead didn't hold up as Malkin, dueling with Ovechkin the way they did while trading off scoring titles only a few years back, carried the puck in heavy traffic from the blue line to beyond the goal line to set up Neal for his 26th goal at 7:06.
 
"Without Crosby, he's the key to that team," Ovechkin said.
 
This Capitals-Penguins game lacked the injured Crosby (concussion symptoms), plus the Capitals' Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom, but it wasn't missing much else. There were numerous scoring chances, given the relatively low number of shots (47 overall, 27 by Pittsburgh), multiple breakaways, excellent goaltending, big hits and an elevated level of on-ice animosity by teams whose rivalry is genuine.   
 
The rivalry between the current generation of Caps and Pens peaked during Pittsburgh's seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinal series win in 2009 and seems to grow greater every year, even though the teams meet only four times a season.
 
Did it remind Ovechkin of those days?
 
"It reminded me of nothing," Ovechkin said. "It was just a hockey game."
 
But certainly not the average game.
 
"Geno was playing with that fire, creating opportunities in a tough-checking game, and then he finishes it off in overtime," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
 
Letang, playing his third game since returning from a nearly two-month layoff with a concussion, intercepted a clearing pass along the boards, skated to center point and beat Neuvirth with a slap shot for a power-play goal with 4:51 gone– his second goal in two games.
 
Neal followed at 5:52 by grabbing the puck after Malkin controlled the faceoff and snapping off a wrist shot from the top of the left circle.
 
"He's just an unbelievable player right now," Neal said.
 
Neuvirth, starting even though Tomas Vokoun shut out the Penguins 1-0 only 11 days before, gave up two goals on the Penguins’ first four shots after stopping 86 of their previous 88 shots. Neuvirth finished with 23 saves, while Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury made 17 while winning his sixth in a row.
 
Only two days after the Penguins rallied from two goals down to beat Montreal 5-4 in a shootout created by Malkin's late tying goal, they couldn't hold a two-goal lead of their own.
 
With Ovechkin becoming a bigger factor with every shift, he assisted on second-period goals by Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin slightly more than three minutes apart to abruptly halt the momentum Pittsburgh had generated from the start.
 
Laich beat Fleury, who was playing in his 21st consecutive game, from the edge of the crease off Dennis Wideman's pass at 11:02 with the teams skating 4-on-4. Semin followed at 14:38 by converting off a rebound of Mathieu Perreault's shot from the high slot.
 
Perreault, moved up to the top line due to Marcus Johansson's illness, had a pair of assists for the Capitals, who are 1-2-1 in their last four with only a Tuesday game against Boston remaining before the All-Star break. The Penguins try to keep their streak going at St. Louis that night.
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