Evgeni Malkin has played some terrific hockey lately.
Quite possibly the finest of his career.
But maybe, just maybe, not his best of this season.
That, defenseman Brooks Orpik suggested after the Penguins' 2-1 shootout victory against Carolina Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center, might still be coming.
- Evgeni Malkin's numbers in the Penguins three-game winning streak:
- 5 goals
- 7 points
- +6 plus/minus
"Everyone you talk to says ACL [surgery], it takes you 12 months to recover," Orpiks said. "So if this isn't 100 percent for him, it's pretty scary. This is as well as he's played in a long time."
Or maybe ever.
Malkin, who had his knee surgically repaired Feb. 10, followed up his natural hat trick Sunday in Tampa by scoring the Penguins' only goal in regulation against the Hurricanes, then beating goalie Cam Ward again in the shootout.
Although Malkin's shootout goal did not settle the shootout -- James Neal got one that did that in the third round, before goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sealed the victory by rejecting Eric Staal -- once again no one did more to make this victory possible, even though he was not named one of the game's three stars.
"He's played some really good hockey," coach Dan Bylsma said.
So, on this night, did Fleury, who turned aside 25 of 26 shots during regulation and overtime, then stopped Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal in the shootout after being beaten by Jussi Jokinen in the opening round.
"He's playing unbelievable now," Malkin said. "The first goal he didn't see the puck, but when he sees it, he stops every one."
The same can be said of Ward, who rejected 40 of 41 shots before the shootout.
- 3. Cam Ward, Hurricanes G: 40 saves
- 2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins G: 25 saves
- 1. James Neal, Penguins LW: Shootout goal
The only one that eluded him came off Malkin's stick at 18:38 of the first period, when Malkin knocked the puck away from Staal, then skated a few strides and stuck a shot under the crossbar.
"Not too many guys can make a quick play like that and put it top shelf," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said.
Staal is a pretty fair one, as well, but was victimized by a bouncing puck.
"That puck came off the glass and was bouncing around like a 'knucklepuck,' " Staal said. "You get a good bounce going the other way, it's a four-on-two. You get a bad bounce, and it goes on Malkin's stick and he buries it."
The victory was the Penguins' third in a row and, coupled with Washington's 3-0 loss against the New York Islanders, bumped them two points ahead of the eighth-place Capitals in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins' winning streak has come in the wake of six consecutive losses, easily their worst stretch of the season.
"We worked hard to get out of that little streak we were in," Neal said.
The shootout was the Penguins' first since Nov. 5, when they earned a 3-2 victory in Los Angeles. They had not gone to overtime since Nov. 26, when Kris Letang scored the winner in a 4-3 victory in Montreal, despite absorbing a concussion-inducing hit to the head late in regulation.
Skinner, one of the top young forwards in the NHL, left the game briefly at 7:03 of the third period after absorbing a big hit from Orpik in the neutral zone.
"If there was any contact, probably my hands hit my head," Skinner said. "It was a pretty good hit."
Skinner was playing in his second game after missing 16 because of a concussion, said he stayed down after the hit in order to "collect my thoughts."
Orpik was assessed an interference minor, even though replays confirmed that it was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, and that Skinner had just played the puck.
"He chipped [the puck] by me," Orpik said. "The ref said he didn't think [Skinner] got the puck, but he saw a replay and apologized after.
"It happens quick. That's a tough call for him. I tried to keep my arm down as [much] as possible. I thought it was pretty clean. ... [Skinner] wasn't too happy about it, but that's the way it goes. It's part of the game."
Skinner returned to the game a few minutes after the Penguins killed Orpik's minor and stayed through the shootout, in which he was Carolina's second shooter.
He could not beat Fleury, but a half-minute or so later, Neal buried a shot behind Ward for a 2-1 edge in the shootout. But while Neal's goal decided the game, Malkin's work was the biggest factor in winning it.
"He's a special player," Neal said. "He controls the game."
When he's not dominating it, anyway.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published January 18, 2012 5:00 AM