A handful of games ago, their line was being celebrated as the finest in the National Hockey League.
As it should have been, because no unit was more menacing -- or more productive -- than Evgeni Malkin, flanked by James Neal and Chris Kunitz.
Forget stopping those guys. Most opponents couldn't even hope to slow them a little.
And even though Malkin's line appeared to slip out of synch recently, no one associated with the Penguins seemed to be terribly distressed about it.
- 1. James Neal, Penguins LW: 1 goal, 2 assists
- 2. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins C: 3 assists
- 3. David Krejci, Bruins C: 2 goals
Partly because Jordan Staal and his linemates, Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis, filled the void so effectively, and partly because it was assumed that Malkin's line would regain its rhythm.
Which it did Sunday, when it accounted for two goals and six assists in the Penguins' 5-2 victory against Boston at Consol Energy Center.
"It's going to happen," said Neal, who complemented his first goal in 10 games with two assists. "You don't like to see it, but it's hard to be that good every night. We try to be like that. As long as you stay positive, it's going to come back."
Malkin, in his 413th NHL game, had three assists to reclaim first place in the league scoring race and to raise his career points total to 502. Former Penguin Jaromir Jagr needed 419 games to reach 500.
Malkin also got onto the scoresheet for a hit he delivered to Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk late in the third period. That check sent Boychuk face-first into the glass and might result in Malkin hearing from Brendan Shanahan, who handles supplemental discipline from the league.
Boychuk did not leave the game and said after it that he felt "fine."
Malkin, who was assessed a boarding minor, said Boychuk "turned a little bit quick" as Malkin was preparing to hit him, and that he delivered the blow with his shoulder, not an elbow.
"It's a little bit dangerous, of course, because [he] wasn't too far from the boards," Malkin said. "I said I'm sorry, of course, but it's tough to say now. I haven't seen the replay."
Bruins coach Claude Julien suggested Malkin likely won't be punished by the league because he is not a repeat offender. But Julien left no doubt he believes Shanahan should investigate.
"The league will have to look at it," Julien said. "And it was a hit from behind. Again, they're the ones that make that decisions. We don't like those hits."
Boston lost for the second time on the weekend, while the Penguins won their ninth consecutive game, the second-longest such streak in the NHL this season. The Bruins had a 10-game run Nov. 1-23.
The Penguins (42-21-5) moved four points ahead of Philadelphia and New Jersey, which are tied for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, and remain four behind the first-place New York Rangers.
The Penguins' next game will be Thursday against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and they will face New York here March 27.
"We need to win these [two remaining head-to-head] games [with the Rangers]," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Otherwise, I don't think it's going to really be a possibility [to overtake New York]. We've inched closer. We've gone on a streak where we've won nine, but we expect the Rangers to win hockey games, too."
The win was the Penguins' seventh in a row on home ice, matching their longest such streak at Consol Energy Center, and gave them a 4-0 homestand, their best since going 5-0 Feb. 2-11, 1999.
Center Sidney Crosby, who has not played since Dec. 5 because of concussion-like symptoms and a neck injury, sat out the game, as expected. However, defenseman Deryk Engelland returned after missing three games with an unspecified injury, earning an assist in 19 minutes, 58 seconds of playing time.
While Engelland is an enthusiastic hitter, Neal threw the most memorable checks of this day.
Opponents who go out of their way to physically punish Zdeno Chara, Boston's 6 feet 9, 255-pound defenseman, have either a death wish or a plan. In the Penguins' case, it was the latter.
Neal triggered the Penguins' best first period of the season when he felled Chara with a hit just under 4 1/2 minutes into the game. He received a minor penalty for interference, but the two minutes he spent in the penalty box proved to be a terrific investment for the Penguins.
"We'll take that penalty that [Neal] took anytime," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "That kind of set the tone, especially because it was Chara.
"I think you saw the rest of the game, he was a little tentative going back for pucks, maybe not as effective as he usually is."
Not nearly as effective, to be sure, as Malkin and his linemates were. Again.
Boston 0 2 0--2
Penguins 3 1 1--5
First period--1, Penguins, Asham 4 (Lovejoy, Adams), 3:24. 2, Penguins, Niskanen 4 (Malkin, Neal), 7:12. 3, Penguins, Neal 31 (Malkin), 18:48 (pp). Penalties--Neal, Pit (interference), 4:25; Lucic, Bos (slashing), 17:16; Chara, Bos (interference), 17:51; Seidenberg, Bos (tripping), 19:35.
Second period--4, Boston, Krejci 19 (Seguin, Lucic), 1:56. 5, Penguins, Kunitz 20 (Neal, Malkin), 4:27. 6, Boston, Krejci 20 (Lucic, Seguin), 10:01. Penalties--None.
Third period--7, Penguins, Dupuis 18 (Staal, Engelland), 16:07. Penalties--Malkin, Pit (boarding), 13:29; Boychuk, Bos (goaltender interference), 18:08.
Boston shots, plus-minus, ice time: Campbell (2, -2, 13:40), Rolston (1, even, 14:59), Corvo (4, even, 20:25), Lucic (3, even, 22:30), Seguin (4, even, 21:13), Ference (1, even, 19:03), Thornton (2, -2, 8:23), Kelly (1, even, 16:27), Chara (2, -3, 26:58), Bergeron (0, even, 7:19), Caron (3, even, 16:56), Seidenberg (3, +1, 25:26), Krejci (5, even, 23:21), McQuaid (0, -1, 1:59), Boychuk (3, -1, 24:46), Marchand (2, even, 19:09), Macdermid (0, -2, 6:19), Sauve (0, even, 3:43).
Penguins shots, plus-minus, ice time: Niskanen (4, +2, 23:06), Michalek (0, even, 22:06), Engelland (0, +2, 19:58), Lovejoy (0, even, 13:00), Dupuis (1, +1, 16:33), Staal (2, even, 21:03), Kunitz (4, even, 18:45), Neal (4, +1, 18:43), Cooke (1, -1, 14:25), Tangradi (1, +2, 10:13), Sullivan (0, +1, 16:52), Adams (4, +1, 12:03), Orpik (1, -1, 22:19), Asham (1, +1, 11:04), Vitale (1, even, 11:08), Despres (3, +1, 13:42), Kennedy (1, -1, 11:15), Malkin (4, +1, 19:57).
Shots on goal--Boston 7-16-13--36. Penguins 10-11-11--32.
Power-play opportunities--Boston 0 of 2; Penguins 1 of 4.
Goalies--Boston, Thomas 29-17-0 (10 shots-7 saves), Turco (0:00 second, 22-20). Penguins, Fleury 37-14-3 (36-34).
A--18,609 (18,387). T--2:22. Referees--Marc Joannette, Mike Leggo. Linesmen--Michel Cormier, Derek Amell.
First Published March 12, 2012 4:00 AM