COLUMBUS -- Evgeni Malkin delivered when the Pittsburgh Penguins needed him most.
Malkin earned his second career hat trick in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Pittsburgh's 4-3, series-clinching win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round at Nationwide Arena on Monday night. The 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner was criticized for his lack of production through the first five games of the series, which included a shot-less performance in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4.
"Another hat-trick performance from Malkin when you need it," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Malkin joined Mario Lemieux (3) and Sidney Crosby (2) as the players in franchise history to record multiple postseason hat tricks. Malkin's first playoff hat trick came in Game 2 of Pittsburgh's sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.
Forward James Neal, who normally plays on Malkin's right wing, said Sunday the Penguins needed Malkin to be more selfish and had suggested he shoot more, a claim Malkin disputed after the game Monday.
"I think I could see it coming at the morning skate," Neal said. "Everything he shot was going into the back of the net. We talked to him about it, that he had to shoot the puck more. You saw that tonight."
If he was told to take more shots, it's safe to assume Malkin listened.
He finished the first period with two goals on four shots, with his first goal of the postseason coming 9:11 into the game. Malkin received a cross-crease pass from forward Chris Kunitz and wristed a shot past Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky before an emphatic fist pump.
Malkin had reason to celebrate again 4:02 later, when he scored his second goal. He gave one more fist pump later, with 4:38 remaining in the second period, when he gave the Penguins the only four-goal lead in the series with his third goal of the game.
After having a lackluster start by his standards, Malkin finished the series with three goals, tied for the team lead with forward Jussi Jokinen, and seven points, one point ahead of Crosby, who also faced criticism in the first round.
Malkin played primarily on Crosby's right wing over the final two games of the series. The two appeared to gel Monday after failing to produce in Game 5.
"We understand we need to score," Malkin said. "I've not played a lot on the wings. [Saturday] was the first time I played it all year, it's a little bit tougher, but today I played with more confidence and played better and Sid helped me out with a little bit of talk and we supported each other today."
Playoff games with 3+ points, Penguins franchise history
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Evgeni Malkin
has become only the third player in Penguins franchise history to record multiple hat tricks in the Playoffs, joining Mario Lemieux
(3) and Sidney Crosby
(2). Malkin previously recorded a hat trick on May 21, 2009 vs Carolina in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
It marks only the second time in franchise history that a Pittsburgh player has recorded a hat trick in a game where they can eliminate their opponent from the Playoffs. Lemieux accomplished the feat on May 11, 1996 in Game 5 of Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Rangers.
Malkin recorded three points in a postseason game for the 12th time in his career, the fourth most of any player in Penguins franchise history.
Crosby was impressed with Malkin's performance and Pittsburgh's play as a whole. He noted the Penguins had played the way they had hoped to from the beginning of the postseason over the past two games and hopes that carries into the Eastern Conference Second Round. The Penguins will face either the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers.
"He had the puck a lot, created a lot of chances and had some jump in his step. So, it was great to see," Crosby said. "We have to build off of [their performance Monday]. I think in the playoffs, you have to get better as you go along."
The Penguins won the best-of-7 series in six games without Crosby scoring a goal. They won after surrendering two multi-goal leads that resulted in losses. They won despite Malkin's struggles to regain the level of play he displayed before sustaining a foot injury that sidelined him for the final 11 games of the regular season.
It took five games, but Malkin returned to form. He was more selfish, leading the team with six shots and a decent chance of scoring on four. His play, along with Crosby's, will be crucial to a team that was reliant on its top two lines throughout the regular season.
That the Penguins were able to win a series without significant contributions from its two primary stars through the majority of it was a testament to Pittsburgh's power-play prowess, despite allowing three shorthanded goals in the series. But the Penguins needed every one of Malkin's goals in order to avoid allowing a third multi-goal lead to evaporate Monday.
Malkin had not scored a goal in his previous nine playoff games before Monday. If Pittsburgh is to advance further in the postseason, it will likely need Malkin's Game 6 performance to become more the rule and not the exception.
"I think [what was] more important is that we won the game," Malkin said. "It was tough series, but we will play in the second round and when you score, you feel so much better. You have more confidence and I hope in the second round, I score in the first game."