RALEIGH, N.C. -- At times, it seems terribly unfair.
Sure, the Penguins didn't break any rules to get the rights to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- they ended up with Malkin after losing a lottery -- but that can't be much consolation to the rest of the NHL these days.
It certainly isn't to Carolina, which was shoved to within 60 minutes of the offseason by those two last night, as they carried the Penguins to a 6-2 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final at the RBC Center.
"They're unbelievable," Penguins forward Craig Adams said. "To me, they're 1 and 1A, and I don't know which one is which.
"Just so competitive, so talented. They just want to play in these big games and score the goals, and they're doing it."
Often enough that the Penguins have a 3-0 lead in the series and can clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup final for the second year in a row with a victory in Game 4 here Tuesday night.
"I think everyone wants to play in the final now," Malkin said.
Precedent says the chances of that are awfully good because only two teams in Stanley Cup history have rebounded from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. Toronto did it against Detroit in 1942, and the New York Islanders did it against the Penguins in 1975.
Neither of those clubs, it should be noted, did it against an opponent that had the two leading scorers in the playoffs.
Both solidified their places in the points race in Game 3. Crosby scored the Penguins' second goal after setting up the first to raise his total to 26; Malkin scored the first and third, and set up the fourth to push his to 28.
"It's unbelievable," defenseman Kris Letang said. "You're lucky to have only one [player like that], and we have two."
That was evident, yet again, during the first period last night.
Carolina got the strong start it wanted and, at 4:06, Matt Cullen converted a Patrick Eaves set-up to put the Hurricanes up, 1-0.
THIRD PERIOD / 11:29: Hanging on to a 3-2 lead, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin lugs the puck into the Carolina zone against Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo. He leaves a drop pass and drives toward the net. Left winger Ruslan Fedotenko picks up the puck and fires a wrist shot that flutters over the stick of Corvo and just over the crook of goaltender Cam Ward's left arm into the cage. That gives the Penguins a two-goal lead and all but secures the victory.
That proved to be their high-water mark, however, because the Penguins tied the score 32 seconds after Eaves was penalized for slashing at 6:18.
Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason tried to backhand a bouncing puck out of his zone, but Malkin blocked it and then broke down the slot before tossing a shot past goalie Cam Ward.
The score remained 1-1 into the final minute, when Bill Guerin pulled in an outlet pass from Chris Kunitz and moved down the left side, then threw a backhand feed toward the net.
Crosby, who had shaken free of Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen, deflected it past Ward with 42.2 seconds left for his league-leading 14th goal of the postseason.
That silenced the standing-room crowd of 18,789, and Malkin squeezed the breath out of it with another one 11.9 seconds before the period expired.
He grabbed the puck near the outer edge of the right circle, carried it along the goal line, then tossed a shot by Ward to wrap up his second consecutive multiple-goal period. It was his 12th goal of the playoffs and fourth in a span of 30 minutes, 59 seconds, dating to 8:50 of the third period in Game 2.
"Those [late goals] were big," Crosby said.
Ward was sensational during the second period -- "He kept them in it," Adams said -- and, when Sergei Samsonov converted a rebound at 1:58 of the third, the outcome suddenly was in doubt. A little.
At least until Ruslan Fedotenko snuffed Carolina's comeback hopes by taking a drop pass from Malkin and putting a shot over Ward's glove at 11:29 to restore the Penguins' two-goal edge.
Adams got an empty-net goal at 18:12 and, 40 seconds later, after Ward had returned, Guerin scored on a backhander from the slot to close out the scoring.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published May 24, 2009 4:00 AM