Following a three-game stretch in which the Pens went 0-2-1 and scored a total of three goals, center Evgeni Malkin had a message to his team.
“When you lose a couple games and aren’t playing right everyone gets nervous, coaches, players, the organization,” Malkin said Friday following the team’s practice. “We know we can come back. I believe this team has good guys and good players. We need to support each other, relax and we’ll be back.”
Malkin didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk.
The 28-year-old Russian posted two goals and four points as the Pens responded with an offensive explosion and two huge victories on back-to-back nights Saturday in St. Louis, 4-2, and Sunday against Florida, 5-1.
“It doesn’t matter what team we play. If we play right and play our game we’ll beat any team in the league,” Malkin said. “We showed the last two games how we can play. We need to keep that same focus.”
The Pens dominated one of the best teams in the NHL in their own barn when they topped the Blues at Scottrade Center.
Winger Blake Comeau, who was moved to right wing with Malkin in the past two contests, led the way with two goals and three points. Pittsburgh built a 4-0 lead late in the third period before the Blues connected on two late goals.
“It felt good to be able to contribute,” Comeau said after the game. “We weren’t scoring a lot of goals lately, so sometimes it’s nice to switch things up and hopefully spark something.”
Less than 24 hours later the Pens faced a Panthers team that was quietly emerging as a playoff wild card threat. This time Malkin took charge with two goals, three points and five shots.
The Panthers had a 27-15 edge in shots over the Pens as the final minute of the second period was ticking down. However, Pittsburgh had a 1-0 lead. Malkin put the dagger in Florida’s back when he stole a turnover in the neutral zone, skated hard to the net and sniped a hard backhand shot through the legs of goalie Al Montoya to give the Pens a 2-0 lead with 26 seconds left in the middle frame.
“Any time you score in the last minute of a period it’s always important,” Malkin said. “We led 1-0 and the second period was tough for us. We didn’t play right. With each goal the team relaxed more.”
Also encouraging was the Pens’ power play, which had gone nine straight games without a goal, went 2-for-6 over the two-game stretch (though it could have been 3-for-6 as Brandon Sutter scored a goal just a millisecond after a power play expired).
The Pens have tried different things and tinkered with their man-advantage. But what worked was going back to Square 1. Malkin was placed back at the point and Sidney Crosby was put on the halfwall. It’s a look the team used all of last year and at the start of the current season.
“(The power play) went a long time without scoring,” Malkin said. “We talked a lot about it last week. I’m playing point, like when we started at the beginning of the season and the same five guys. We wanted to move the puck, not just the puck, but move our bodies, too. You see it’s working.”
The Pens weren’t happy with their three-game skid. But, as captain Sidney Crosby pointed out during the malaise, facing adversity isn’t always a bad thing. It’s how you respond that counts.
“It’s how you handle it and how you find a way to get out of it,” Crosby said.
Malkin’s message to his teammates during the adversity was to relax and stick together. Then he went out and led the charge.
“We relaxed on the ice and in the locker room,” Malkin said. “There’s lots of pressure for us from the media, fans, everybody. We know how good we are. We just needed to focus and play all 60 minutes. The last two games we played very well.”