PHILADELPHIA -- This should have been Evgeni Malkin's stage.
A Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, the hulking center stormed back this season from February 2011 knee surgery to win the NHL scoring title with 109 points -- including 50 goals and an impressive average of 1.45 points a game -- and is expected to be a finalist, if not the favorite, for the Hart Trophy awarded in June to the league MVP.
After missing the 2011 playoffs because of that anterior cruciate knee reconstruction, Malkin was itching to get into this postseason.
And then ... crickets.
At least, for the first three games of the Penguins' first-round series against Philadelphia, all Flyers wins.
Finally, in Game 4 Wednesday with his and his team's backs plastered against the wall, Malkin joined a points party. He had two goals and an assist in a 10-3 win that kept the team alive.
He figured he just needed to get on a roll.
"I said before the last game that I needed to score one goal and it [would help] to score another," Malkin said.
And he did it without his regular right winger, James Neal, who was serving a one-game suspension for a hit in Game 3 on Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.
Neal is expected to return for Game 5 Friday at Consol Energy Center.
"He's an important player for us, and on the power play, too, but it doesn't matter who plays; we can still win," Malkin said.
It's no doubt easier when Malkin is scoring.
"He was right in there, creating a lot," fellow Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. 'For him to put a couple in, I'm sure that feels good. You're not going to get a ton of chances, but, when you get them, you have to put them in.
"Goals aren't always a reflection of how you're playing. You can still be playing well and get chances, and they don't go in. So to get a couple of goals is really good for him."
It was something of a breakout game for a lot of Penguins players -- defenseman Matt Niskanen, who began the series injured, had a goal and an assist; center Jordan Staal had a hat trick; goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury bounced back from being pulled in Game 3 and added an assist; and Crosby had a goal and two assists.
But awakening the slumbering giant was as important as anything in avoiding elimination for a team that was widely picked as a Stanley Cup favorite.
Malkin, 25, came into the game with no goals and four assists, but they were quiet assists.
For the first three games, Malkin repeatedly was described as invisible. Perhaps, the most attention he got was in reference to the great defensive job 19-year-old Flyers center Sean Couturier was doing against him.
Malkin said it was a matter of matching the rookie.
"It's tough," Malkin said. "He's a great kid, and he's playing very well. I tried to work hard, too."
Malkin scored the Penguins first goal, and his first of the series, after he came out of the penalty box in the first period. He got the puck and raced toward the Flyers net. He left a drop pass for Pascal Dupuis, who sent the puck back to Malkin.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov stopped Malkin's close-range shot but didn't cover it or control the rebound, and Malkin deposited a backhanded shot to forge a 1-1 tie at 3:37.
Later in the first period, he picked up the second assist on Crosby's goal. Malkin struck again at 10:06 of the third period, scoring the Penguins' 10th goal on a rebound.
"The best thing is to just shoot the puck," Malkin said. "We know Bryzgalov is good, but sometimes he has lots of rebounds, and we can go to the net and pick up the rebound."
First Published April 19, 2012 6:15 AM