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Beast Mode

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
As the Penguins locker room opened for post-game interviews, the media beelined for Evgeni Malkin’s stall as his teammates playfully cheered him on.

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It’s no wonder reporters wanted to talk to Malkin, as the Penguins center scored the overtime winner and added two assists to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 victory over Washington at CONSOL Energy Center Sunday afternoon.

The Penguins have now won a season-high six straight games and Malkin has scored at least once in each of those contests, which ties for the longest goal-scoring streak of his career which he established Oct. 18-Nov. 1, 2006 – the first six games of his NHL career.

“I have great confidence now,” Malkin said. “We’ve won six games. I think everyone has great confidence now. We just enjoy playing the game and have fun.”

The chemistry that Malkin has with winger James Neal all season manifested itself in a big way in Sunday’s game.

Neal scored twice – with Malkin assisting on both goals – and earned the helper on Malkin’s game winner.

“We’re feeding off each other,” Neal said of playing with Malkin. “Go to a soft spot and he’s going to find you. I just try to get him the puck with speed at all times. He drags guys to him. We do a lot of give-and-gos and a lot of little plays to try and keep our speed. He’s a lot of fun to play with. He’s an unbelievable player.”

They’re certainly a lot of fun to watch, as both young men are at the top of their games.

“They come up big every night,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “They've been playing really well.”

Malkin is the NHL’s scoring leader with 58 points despite missing seven games due to injury. He’s had goals in eight of his last nine contests and is averaging a league-leading 1.41 points per game (41 games played).

In addition, Malkin and Neal each have 26 goals – which ties for third in the NHL goal-scoring race. They also hold the top two spots in the league’s shots category, with Neal’s 204 shots ranking first and Malkin’s 196 placing second.

But coming back from the bigger picture, their Sunday afternoon heroics couldn’t have come at a better time. The Capitals stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead early in the third before Malkin and Neal went into beast mode.

Neal tied the game 7:06 into the final frame when he got the puck on his backhand in a tight corner and used some deft stick work to switch to his forehand and roof it over Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth.

Neal credited veteran winger Chris Kunitz – who joined Malkin and Neal back in December – with doing the dirty work to make that goal possible.

“A great job in front by ‘Kuni,’” Neal said. “Just a quick little screen. He takes the vision away from the goalie for a split second and I get a chance to shoot it.

“We’re playing as a line, as Kuni does those things that go unnoticed every night. He battles so hard for loose pucks and is so hard to play against. He opens up a lot of space for myself and Geno, and sometimes that goes unnoticed. He did another heck of a job tonight.”

Malkin’s overtime winner also came from tight quarters. Neal’s shot went off the back boards to Malkin at the side of the net, who squeezed it past Neuvirth from an impossible angle to seal the deal for Pittsburgh.

“I see Nealsy take the puck on the blue line and I know I need to go to the front because he’s a shooter,” Malkin described. “He always shoots the puck. It was a lucky bounce off the boards and I just shot into the empty net.”

They’ve carried the Penguins through six straight victories, and their teammates, coaches and fans hope that extends to seven on Tuesday in St. Louis.

“Neal has been playing well for us all season long. He's a really important part of our success,” Letang said. “I don't know what to say about Malkin. He's just unbelievable right now. He's been playing the best hockey I've ever seen.”
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