— When the Hart Memorial Trophy candidates were announced by the National Hockey League Tuesday afternoon, it was no surprise that Evgeni Malkin
’s name was on the list.
That’s the kind of honor 106 points in 82 games earns these days.
So when the Pittsburgh Penguins
took on the New York Rangers
at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, it was no surprise that Malkin was at the center of just about everything to lead the Penguins to a 5-3 victory and a 3-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
That’s the kind of effort you get from a Hart Trophy candidate.
Malkin had the primary assist on the Penguins’ second goal, scored their third and fourth tallies, and won a huge faceoff that led to their fifth goal, which gave them the insurance they needed against the hard-charging Rangers.
It was an MVP performance by the Penguins’ MVP.
“This guy is so comfortable with the puck,” Penguins forward Marian Hossa
said. “When he has the puck on his stick, he’s playing with it like it’s pickup hockey. He’s so calm, and you can see from his play how comfortable he is on the ice.”
Malkin turned into an MVP candidate when Sidney Crosby
left the ice on Jan. 18 with a high ankle sprain after sliding feet first into the end boards. In an ironic twist, losing No. 87 for a period of time might have been the best thing to happen to the Penguins this season — it gave Malkin a chance to center his own line instead of playing out of position on the wing with Crosby. In No. 87’s absence, Malkin flourished with 15 goals and 22 assists in 21 games.
His hot streak enabled Penguins coach Michel Therrien to keep Malkin on his own line when Crosby returned. That gave the Penguins two of the best centers in the game on separate lines, a lethal combination that has proved deadly to opponents in the Playoffs.
In seven playoff games, Malkin has 13 points on five goals and eight assists. He scored the game-winner in Games 1 and 3 of this series. Crosby, who had two assists Tuesday night, has 12 points on two goals and 10 assists. The Penguins are a remarkable 7-0, having swept Ottawa before winning the first three against New York.
“He was good,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said of Malkin. “There was no two ways about that.”
Malkin’s night started a bit askew as he shot wide of an open net off a 2-on-1 feed from Sykora midway through the first period. However, after the Rangers tied the game at 1-1 on Martin Straka’s goal, Malkin went to work.
With linemate Malone in the penalty box as a result of three sets of matching minors resulting from a melee following the Rangers’ goal, Malkin made enforcer Georges Laraque look like a formidable second-line presence with a gritty play of his own. He plowed into the corner to pry the puck loose and get it behind the net. Sykora was there and his centering pass caromed off Malkin’s skate before sliding to Laraque, who fired it under the crossbar 16:17 into the first period to give the Pens a 2-1 lead.
Just 1:24 later Malkin showed off his heavy shot from the “Stanley Cup Playoffs” logo a few feet inside the blue line. His straightaway blast went through Malone’s legs and beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist low inside the right post for a 3-1 lead.
“Geno, hey, just let him shoot,” Malone said, using Malkin’s nickname. “We’ve been telling him to shoot. Everybody on the power play did a great job, but with Geno, you just have to make sure it doesn’t hit you. Just let it fly by you.”
The Rangers fought back in a wild second period to tie the game at 3-3 on goals by Ryan Callahan and Jaromir Jagr, but Malkin’s heavy shot came out again during a power play with just over two minutes to play before intermission.
With Ryan Hollweg in the box for needlessly boarding Sykora, the Penguins’ power play, which was 2-for-3 on the night, kept the puck in the zone for nearly the entire time. Malkin twice shot from above the right circle and twice had his shot blocked, but he never moved. Later in the advantage Crosby found Malkin with a circle-to-circle pass, and this time his ripper from inside the circle went all the way through and beat Lundqvist for the go-ahead goal with 2:07 left in the period.
It turned out to be not only the game-winner, but the goal that shifted momentum back to the Penguins after what they had been dominated by the Rangers for most of the period. It may very well be the goal the Rangers remember most if they go on to lose this series.
“He’s got a heavy shot and everyone has seen it,” Malone said. “I remember last year he shot a puck from the goal line, Mario-style, into the upper corner. There wasn’t much room, but he doesn’t need much room to put the puck in the net.”
Even though it turned out the Penguins wouldn’t need any more offense, Malkin wasn’t done.
He had already used his shot and grit to generate three goals. Early in the third period he did it by way of the faceoff circle, which wasn’t one of Malkin’s favorite areas this season as he won just 39.3 percent of his 890 draws.
However, early in the third he beat Callahan and got the puck back to Sykora, who pushed it to the point for Kris Letang. The quick shot by the Pens rookie defenseman was deflected past Lundqvist by Malone in front for a 5-3 lead at 2:30.
Malkin couldn’t be credited with an assist on the goal consider both Sykora and Letang touched the puck before Malone, but he created the play with the faceoff win.
“Malkin was really effective,” Therrien said. “Our special teams were effective and he’s part of the power play. The fourth goal put us in a good position to win the game after the second period. That was a huge goal.”
From an MVP-type player, who is officially an MVP candidate.
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org