The first time Evgeni Malkin got passed over, yeah, that stung a little.
OK, maybe a bit more than that.
But when the NHL's hockey operations department ignored another opportunity yesterday to put Malkin in the All-Star Game, well, that slight seemed to leave a mark. On his psyche, anyway.
And then Malkin left one -- no, several -- on the New York Rangers.
He recorded his second hat trick in six games and threw perhaps the most crushing hit of his NHL career, burying Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival with a shoulder to the chest midway through the first period, in the Penguins' 4-1 victory against New York at Mellon Arena last night.
Malkin's rampage came hours after the league announced that Boston center Marc Savard would replace Ottawa winger Dany Heatley in the Eastern Conference lineup for the game Jan. 27 in Atlanta.
And it didn't appear to be a coincidence.
"I'm not sure if he's playing with something to prove or not," center Sidney Crosby said. "But he's definitely playing with a little something extra."
Heck, conspiracy theorists might suggest that the league officials chose Savard not because he was the most worthy candidate, but because the Penguins -- realizing the impact another snub would have on Malkin -- pleaded with them to leave him off the team.
Malkin, speaking through a translator, allowed that he was "a little disappointed" about not making the East squad, but added "that means I have to work harder in the future."
The Rangers, it should be noted, probably don't share that opinion.
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 26-16-3 and moved them into a tie with New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division, although the Devils have a game in hand.
Crosby set up both of Malkin's goals -- "They're really starting to [play well] together," coach Michel Therrien said -- to raise his point total to 63, good for a tie with Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier for the top spot in the NHL scoring race.
Asked if that feat meant anything to him, Crosby responded simply, "No, I'm worried about playing."
Penguins enforcer Georges Laraque and his Rangers counterpart, Colton Orr, fought seven seconds after the opening faceoff. Laraque had a decided edge early, while Orr finished strong.
"I just wanted to set the tone, because we were outplayed, physically, in New York [during a 4-0 loss Dec. 18]," Laraque said. "We looked like kids. We got abused that game. Now, we responded, right off the bat, and it was a different game."
The Penguins' power play started quickly, too, generating a goal 35 seconds after New York defenseman Paul Mara was sent off for holding.
Malkin got the puck from Crosby, moved along the goal line to the right of the Rangers' net, then cut toward the slot before throwing a shot inside the far post at 3:31.
He struck again at 6:33, rapping in a rebound after New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist failed to hold onto a Crosby shot from inside the left circle. The goal, Malkin's 22nd, netted an assist for Rob Scuderi, his first point since the home opener against Anaheim.
Sergei Gonchar effectively put the game away during a five-on-three power play at 16:48, lashing a slap shot past Lundqvist from the top of the left circle for his eighth goal of the year.
New York had a 17-2 advantage in shots during the second and, while that stat can be misleading -- the Rangers come off the bus shooting, and don't stop until the final buzzer -- Penguins goalie Ty Conklin produced some quality stops then to keep his team up by three en route to a career-high 43 saves.
"Ty was outstanding again," Therrien said.
Although Conklin frustrated the Rangers for most of the evening, he lost a chance for his third shutout in the past eight games when Jaromir Jagr nudged in his own rebound during a power play at 9:16 of the third.
Malkin then hit an empty net with 23.9 seconds to play to finish his hat trick and underscore the Penguins' contention that he deserves to be in the East lineup.
"He's definitely all-star caliber," Therrien said. "We truly believe he should be there. He proved it tonight."
That won't matter, however, unless another player has to pull out of the game because of injury.
"The only thing he can do is prove, with his game, that he deserves to be there," Gonchar said.
Consider the point made. Again.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published January 15, 2008 5:00 AM