No sane student of the NHL would have traded a vintage Robbie Brown bobblehead for Pittsburgh's chances of overturning a two-goal Florida lead in the third period last night.
It wasn't that the hole was too deep; it was more that the Penguins had poured 40 minutes of sometimes dubious energy into excavating what appeared to be a perfectly inescapable predicament, given their lack of urgency as it paled against the desperation of the Panthers.
Michel Therrien's face still wrinkled 20 minutes after it was over.
"The first two periods," winced the Penguins coach, "our execution wasn't there. The transition game wasn't there."
But Evgeni Malkin was there, and for all the heroics that went into three Penguin goals in the game's final 16 minutes, two in the final four, this 3-2 victory was the essential evidence that Therrien's team is simply never out of a game that Malkin is in.
Malkin's sweat-soaked mitts were all over this third period eruption, assisting on the first two goals and drawing the hooking penalty on Jay Bouwmeester (cq) that set up the only successful power play of the night.
"When the game's on the line," Therrien said, "you want your best player to be at his best. There's no doubt that in the third period, Malkin was outstanding. He wanted to win."
Dominating the puck, the flow, the play, the game, and dictating the roiling emotions of another sellout crowd, Malkin began by sliding a nifty centering pass around Bouwmeester to Colby Armstrong early in this little monument of a third period; Armstrong whipped it over the shoulder of Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun to finally put the Pens on the board at 4:43 of the third.
It seemed the Pens had merely avoided a shutout, but when Malkin's improbable cross-ice pass to Ryan Whitney was completed 12 minutes later, Whitney slapped in toward Vokoun and the fortuitous stick of Ryan Malone, who got the game-tying goal at the 16:40 mark.
It was Malone's ferocious drive to the net around Branislav Mezei with 22.4 second left that won it, with Florida's Bryan Allen toppling Malone onto his can for the trouble, but Florida lost these two points because they could not control No. 71.
"Once we got that first goal it was a completely different game," Malkin said through his interpreter. "We had so many chances before that."
Twin forces were at work early in last night's hockey proceedings, and neither seemed to be indicating a happy ending for the Penguins, who'd been outshot in four consecutive games coming and had historically struggled in their own building against these Panthers.
One had to do with the splendid scoring chances Pittsburgh was eschewing in the first period, as though awaiting the appearance of an actual silver platter, the metaphorical kind just not getting the Penguins' persistent attention.
Malkin, skating short-handed, beat Steve Montador around the right point and broke loose, then allowed a two-on-one to develop with Max Talbot, but fired harmlessly into Vokoun's pads.
Less than a minute later, Jordan Staal rang the left post despite an expanse of open net. Though no scoring chance was better, there were at least two more of nearly equal allure, and it was no small issue that the Penguins allowed the Panthers to get the first goal instead. When the Panthers have failed to get the first goal this year, they're 9-21-2.
The second mini-trend illuminating itself before the first intermission was the danger implicit in the long rebounds Conklin was allowing. The first came when McLean whipped a slapper from the high slot and the rebound came back nearly as far. A Ruslan Salei shot produced another long rebound, and when Kamil Kreps' wrister resulted in a third toward the near edge of the left circle, David Booth buried it for a 1-0 Panthers lead at 16:24 of the first.
For all of Conklin's rebound problems in the first 20 minutes, he was still enough of his remarkable self to make the kind of save that might have changed the momentum on a night when the Penguins were actually, you know, paying attention.
Nathan Horton crashed in on Conklin from the right wing eight minutes into the second period, and when Conklin stoned him many in this latest Mellon Arena sellout thought they felt a seismic shift in the flow, but the Penguins soon dissuaded them by turning their own power play in an all-out assault on the wrong net.
With Booth off for hooking at 10:53, Florida's Ville Peltonen swiped the puck near his own blue line and fled in alone on Conklin. Ty stopped the attempted stuffer, but with the Penguins trying to set something up in the Panthers end just 40 seconds later, Darryl Sydor took his eye off Jeff Taffe's soft drop pass and looked up in horror to see it find the stick of Brett McLean, who broke up alone, again.
McLean's backhander found the net behind Conklin for a 2-0 lead that had the near unmistakable look of permanence.
The mistake was forgetting the full capability of Evgeni Malkin. Few will make it again.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.