Teams have been making a point lately of getting their best defensive pairing on the ice against Evgeni Malkin.
Doesn't seem to matter much.
Many opponents are doing everything possible to match their top defensive forwards against him, too.
Probably isn't worth the trouble.
The simple truth is, when Malkin is performing at the level where he has spent the past few weeks -- including the Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory Sunday against the Washington Capitals at Consol Energy Center, when he set up two goals and scored the winner -- conventional tactics just aren't going to work.
Neutralizing such an extraordinary talent demands something more than a little personnel maneuvering.
Perhaps a silver bullet.
Or maybe a wooden stake.
OK, could be that none of those would work against Malkin, either, but they couldn't be any less effective than what opposing teams have tried during the Penguins' six-game winning streak.
Malkin has at least one goal in each of those six games, matching the longest such streak of his career, and has produced a fairly stunning personal line score: 9 goals, 4 assists.
Another few weeks of production such as that, and Malkin probably could take the stretch drive off to work on his acceptance speeches for the Art Ross and Hart trophies.
Sheer ability obviously has a lot to do with what he has accomplished --"He's obviously got all the tools, all the skill," Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman said -- but Malkin's talent is being magnified by his intangibles.
When he sets out to accomplish something, which seems to be the case virtually every time he goes over the boards lately, there doesn't seem to be many ways to stop him.
Not legal ones, anyway.
Although Malkin's winner against Washington wasn't terribly special for a player with his pedigree -- he collected a carom of a shot that went off the boards behind the Washington net, then flipped the puck past goalie Michal Neuvirth from the right side of the crease at 1:31 of overtime -- the play he made to set up the Penguins' third goal was.
Malkin carried the puck through center ice and into the Washington end, making it past nearly every Capitals player on the ice before defenseman Roman Hamrlik knocked him off his feet.
Malkin didn't give up on the play, though, and followed the puck into the right corner, from where he fed a pass to linemate James Neal in the right circle.
A second or so later, Washington's 3-2 lead had been erased, thanks to a well-placed shot by Neal and Malkin's flat-out refusal to be denied.
"Malkin comes up with the heroics, in terms of setting up the goal," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "And there were another 10 plays where he was playing with that fire."
Lucky for the Penguins that he did, because Washington had a chance to become the first Penguins opponent to win nine consecutive regular-season games in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins' most recent home victory against Washington had been Dec. 27, 2007. Coincidentally, that one also went to overtime and ended, 4-3.
The Penguins and Capitals have generated a lot of entertaining hockey since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, and the rivalry could be ratcheted up a notch or two if the league and NHL Players' Association agree on the realignment plan announced earlier this winter.
It calls for the Penguins and Capitals to be based in the same seven-team conference and face each other six times, up from four, each season. That's not something the Penguins appear to mind.
"It's always fun to play those games," defenseman Kris Letang said.
Letang understandably enjoyed the most recent one, in part because he opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 4:51 of the first. Neal made it, 2-0, 61 seconds later, and the Penguins seemed to be in control.
Washington got goals from Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin in the second, however, and Alex Ovechkin put the Capitals up, 3-2, early in the third.
Still, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said, "Nobody panicked."
Makes sense. After all, they had found a way to win the previous five games. And they had Malkin.
"He's just unbelievable right now," Letang said. "He's been playing the best hockey I've ever seen."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published January 23, 2012 5:00 AM