On Thursday afternoon, Evgeni Malkin sat in his stall after practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Center and made a prediction.
When asked what he expected of Phil Kessel in Game 5 on Friday at PPG Paints Arena, Malkin replied, "He'll score. It's his time to score."
"I feel it," Malkin continued of his linemate. "He's waited for a long time. He hasn't scored in a long time but now it's time. Last game, I think he showed his best game in this series. I see he's like ice, he plays so hard and I believe, I feel it. Tomorrow, he'll show a great game."
Malkin went on to say that personally, he also felt he could be better.
"Now it's time for leadership to show," Malkin said. "Me and Phil, we need to bring our game and help the team to win."
Malkin is always the first person I go to during tough times and after tough losses, because to his credit, he always answers questions candidly and honestly. And in the seven seasons I've covered him, he has ALWAYS gone out and backed up his words with his play.
Tonight was no different. Not only did Kessel score; he also tacked on two assists while Malkin got a goal of his own and added a helper of his own. The two combined for five points (2G-3A) in Pittsburgh's 6-0 win to give them a 3-2 series lead and a chance to clinch in Nashville on Sunday.
"If we didn't score you guys would kill me," Malkin laughed when I asked him about their performances tonight.
"I thought Geno and Phil had huge games for us," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "They're such a big part of our team. We rely on them in so many areas. For those guys to step up the way they did in such an important game for our team, I think, speaks to the character of their person. These guys care about the Penguins. They want to win. And I believe their games have been gaining traction here over the last couple of games. These guys are playing better and better. I mentioned that after Game 4. So (it was great) to see these guys get rewarded on the scoresheet, but it was more than just the score sheet last night.
"These guys played the game the right way. They played a 200-foot game, quick game. And they were certainly difficult to play against. And you can see how dangerous they are when they have the puck. I thought they were a threat almost every shift they were on the ice. And when they play that way, they're inspiring to their teammates. Certainly, they had a huge game for us."
Sidney Crosby set the tone at the beginning of the first period, while Malkin and Kessel made sure they ended strong.
As the final seconds ticked down on the clock with the teams 4-on-4, Kessel carried into the offensive zone while being marked tight. He managed to get the puck to a crashing Malkin, who whipped it past Preds goalie Pekka Rinne with 10.2 seconds left to give Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead.
Video: NSH@PIT, Gm5: Kessel rips a laser from the slot
"I just yelled at him, I think he wanted to shoot but then he looked around and saw I was skating behind him and he dropped it back to me," Malkin explained. "I think I shot off the defenseman's stick, the puck went top shelf. It's a lucky goal, but I don't care."
Eight minutes into the second period, Kessel got his chance to shoot - and made Malkin's prediction come true - when he received a pass from Olli Maatta in the slot. And Kessel fired it past Juuse Saros - who had replaced Rinne - to give Pittsburgh a 5-0 lead.
Kessel had talked on Thursday about how he had missed a couple of shots he didn't want to miss, and that you want to bury them, but sometimes they don't go in. He said he just had to make them count, and tonight, he did.
Malkin's predictions didn't stop at Kessel scoring or him having a better game. He also said he knew the Pens would win the game.
Malkin, right again. As always.
"It's not just me and Phil, it's the whole team that did a great job tonight," said Malkin, who also had a fight late in the game to complete the Gordie Howe hat trick. "It's an unbelievable win. We played all 60 minutes. We were excited to be back home after two losses. We knew it was a huge game for us and Phil had a great game, for sure. He was flying tonight. It was a good game but it's still not done. We need one more game, one more win and we go to Nashville."