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Malkin, Neal picking up Pens' offense without Crosby

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' top-line center is surging at the holidays, piling up point after point in game after game as he tries to win another NHL scoring title.
Last season it was Sidney Crosby. Right now it's Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin, playing at the top of his game just when the surging Penguins need him to do exactly that, teamed with linemates James Neal and Chris Kunitz to dominate play in the offensive zone and lead Pittsburgh to a 4-2 victory against the shot-weary Carolina Hurricanes at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night.
Malkin did everything but score – he had six of Pittsburgh's season-high 52 shots -- while assisting on goals by Neal and Steve Sullivan. The Penguins needed a while to get to Carolina backup goalie Justin Peters, who stopped all but one of 37 shots over the first two periods, but pulled away with three goals in the third period.
"I knew if the guys that we have kept shooting that much, we were in good shape," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.  "They did great."
So many shots, yet Crosby still isn't playing? How are the Penguins doing it?
The answer: Just as he has done in the past when Crosby was sidelined, Malkin -- the 2008-09 Art Ross Trophy winner -- is picking up his game to compensate for No. 87's absence.
Malkin has six goals and 12 assists during an eight-game scoring streak that began when Crosby was sidelined with concussion-related problems for the second time this season.
"Obviously it picks up everybody -- if everybody around him gets a point, everybody feels comfortable," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "You play well and the guys around you feel more confident and you can achieve more."
During Crosby's latest absence, the Penguins are 5-3-0, giving them a 39-22-8 mark without the NHL's marquee player over the last two seasons.
Thanks to his recent surge, Malkin has 42 points, two behind NHL leader Claude Giroux of Philadelphia, despite missing seven games due to a sore right knee. Center Jordan Staal, bumped up to No. 2 line with Crosby out, added his 14th goal in his 400th career game. At 23, Staal is one of the seven youngest players since the 1967 NHL expansion to play in so many games.
"If you look at our centers, they're pretty good," Dupuis said. "Evgeni Malkin is a heck of a player. Jordan Staal is arguably the best defensive and offensive center in the League. We're pretty deep at center. The way we retrieved the puck tonight, we didn't spend too much time in our zone, our d-men were great coming out of the zone and we threw a lot of pucks at them."
Especially the Penguins' new No. 1 line. Malkin, Neal and Kunitz combined for 18 shots, nine by Neal, or as many as the Hurricanes had as a team.
Now that he is on Malkin's line, Neal is streaking, too, getting his 21st goal – one off the NHL lead -- and an assist against Carolina. Neal has seven goals and three assists during his own eight-game scoring streak.
"They're a very dominating pair," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "They've got some good players over there and you can roll them, get away from the matchups you want. The two of them together have the ability to score and make plays and attack, and you have to be worried about them all the time."
Neal's goal wasn't very artistic -- it was a deflection off his stick as Hurricanes defenseman Bryan Allen was attempting to clear the puck from the crease. But it illustrated the age-old hockey axiom that if you keep throwing the puck at the net, eventually it will go in.
"If you're putting pucks on the net and controlling the offensive zone like that, you're going to get your bounces," Neal said.
Or much like Crosby was getting them at this time a season ago, just before a concussion sidelined him for the second half of 2010-11. At the time he was hurt, Crosby had a League-leading 66 points in 41 games.
The win was the Penguins' fourth in a row, one off their season high of five straight from Oct. 18-27. Up next on Thursday is Jaromir Jagr's first visit to Pittsburgh in a Flyers uniform.
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