James Neal claims he was telling Evgeni Malkin to shoot the puck more. And he swears that’s exactly what Malkin was doing during the Penguins’ morning skate heading into Game 6 of their first-round series against the Blue Jackets on Monday night at Nationwide Arena, which made Neal think that the superstar center was going to break his goalless playoff drought dating back to last year in the game.
And Malkin did just that. He recorded his second career postseason hat trick – and the first by any skater in these entire playoffs – to lead the Penguins past the Blue Jackets, 4-3, and into the second round of postseason play.
“I think I could see it coming in morning skate,” Neal said of Malkin’s hat trick. “Everything he shot was going in the back of the net and we talked to him about it, he’s got to shoot the puck more. You saw that tonight. (Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz) made some great plays to him. With his finish, he’s hard to stop. So big game for our team and big game for him.”
Malkin had a different side to the story, saying with a laugh, “Not true. I shoot the puck every practice. When you can’t score, you need to just work and work every day through practice.
“Thanks to my linemates today, ‘Sid’ and ‘Kuni.’ They did a great job passing to me and I score the first goal and have more confidence. Just shoot the puck and I know it’s coming again.”
And it did. Two more times. Malkin followed that up with a power-play score to give him a pair of goals in the first period, before converting a 2-on-1 rush with Neal in the second.
When told Neal said he was one of the people advising him to shoot more, Malkin joked that wasn’t the case, laughing, “’Nealer’ wants the puck. When we went 2-on-1, he says ‘Open! open!’”
But Malkin opted to shoot himself, and he beat Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to cap off the hat trick. That goal stood as the game-winner, one the Penguins ended up needing despite getting off to a 4-0 lead as the Blue Jackets had a late surge to come within one at the end of regulation.
Malkin’s goalless drought, which ended at nine games, had been a major storyline in the series, and so many questions surrounded him as it continued to progress. He answered all of his critics by putting the team on his back and stepping up with an absolutely incredible performance when they needed it the most.
“He knows it's a team game,” Kunitz said. “He's trying to help anyway he can. He's a guy that goes out, blocks shots, tries to mix it up, hangs onto the puck, puck possession is a huge part of the game these days. It was great of him in an elimination game to come out and score those three goals. We really needed all of them tonight.”
Malkin agreed that while it felt fantastic to break through with a big individual performance at a crucial moment, it’s all about the team.
“I think it’s more important that we win the game,” he said. “The series is done. It’s a tough series, but now we play in the second round. Of course when you score you feel so much better. You have more confidence and I hope in the second round I start scoring in the first game.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma put his superstar centers Crosby and Malkin on a line together with Kunitz in Game 5, and did so again in Game 6. Malkin credited both players as being the catalyst behind his game, the captain especially – as the two natural centers worked and communicated to read off each other as linemates in their second game together.
“We understand we need to score,” Malkin said. “I don’t play a lot on the wings. I played there the first time all year (in Game 5). It’s a little bit tougher. But today I have more confidence and play a little bit better and Sid helped me, of course. It was a little bit tough to support each other and today it’s a little bit better.
“Sid likes playing behind the net. Me too. We talked, when he goes there I stay a little bit in front. And if I go behind the net he stayed in front of the net.”
Malkin and Crosby are the Penguins’ best players, and they showed it. Crosby did yeoman’s work along the boards to help set up Malkin’s first goal and made a gorgeous feed to him in the slot on his second. That got the Pens out to a huge 2-0 lead that quieted the raucous crowd at Nationwide Arena and set the tone for the game.
“We play together and everyone looked to the first line,” Malkin said. “We started good and spent time in the offensive zone. Scored goals and the whole team started to play better. We understand how important we play in Columbus. Huge building, great fans. We understand everybody is looking to us.”
And they delivered.