Ryan Malone didn't think his goal would be the game-winner.
And he certainly didn't want it to be.
But he wasn't entirely surprised when it proved to be the difference in the Penguins' 5-4 victory over Anaheim in the home-opener at Mellon Arena last night.
"We always make it exciting," Malone said, smiling. "We have to quit doing that."
But it wasn't only the Penguins who added suspense to the outcome. Anaheim, despite being at the end of a punishing road trip that included five games on two continents, competed on every shift, battled hard for every loose puck.
Showed why it was able to win the Stanley Cup this spring.
"They're never going to let down," Malone said. "That's what makes them the Stanley Cup champions."
The Penguins, it should be noted, flashed some pretty fair intangibles, too. Their effort was far more impressive than the one they put forth during a 4-1 loss at Carolina the previous night.
"It was a character check tonight," Malone said. "I thought everyone showed a lot of pride and bounced back."
While Malone's goal provided the margin of victory, Petr Sykora was the Penguins' most productive forward, scoring two goals and setting up another.
"I couldn't really hope for a better start," he said.
Sykora's second, which came when he knocked a Georges Laraque rebound past Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller at 13:32 of the third period to break a 3-3 tie, put the Penguins in front to stay.
That would have been the game-winner, but Ryan Getzlaf of Anaheim beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with 21.4 seconds left to make it 5-4. At that point, Malone's goal at 13:51 of the third went from insurance to difference-maker.
The goal was made possible by center Sidney Crosby, who lunged along the right-wing boards and swatted the puck to Malone in the center of the ice.
"I was just trying to get the puck over," Crosby said.
Once Malone got it on his stick, he moved down the slot and stuck a shot over Hiller's glove for his first of the season.
Crosby's assist is his only point so far. The Penguins probably expected him to have more after two games, but have to be grateful simply to have him in uniform.
He was hobbled after blocking a Francois Beauchemin shot with the outside of his right foot during the first period. Crosby, who broke his left foot blocking a shot March 16, was in obvious pain and skated gingerly to the bench, but was able to return in the middle of the period.
X-rays did not detect a fracture, although Crosby, who acknowledged that "it did swell up," operated at less than peak efficiency for the balance of the evening.
"He's a warrior, and he always finds a way to get things done," Malone said. "That's the important thing."
Chris Kunitz gave Anaheim a 1-0 lead during a power play at 6:34 of the opening period, when he deflected a Beauchemin wrist shot past Fleury with the shaft of his stick, but the Penguins pulled even on a man-advantage goal by Sykora at 16:39.
The Ducks exploited a giveaway to go in front, 2-1, at 1:25 of the second period. Beauchemin picked off a Sergei Gonchar pass intended for Colby Armstrong along the left-wing boards in the Penguins' end and fed the puck to Getzlaf, who beat Fleury from the slot.
Armstrong must have taken Getzlaf's goal personally, because he got it back with a spectacular individual effort less than three minutes later.
He took a feed from Gary Roberts and moved down the left side, chipping the puck past defenseman Maxim Konratiev on the backhand, then collecting it as he cut into the slot and chipping it over Hiller's left shoulder on the forehand at 3:56 for the Penguins' first even-strength goal of the season.
Armstrong's effort rejuvenated the standing-room crowd of 17,132 and, apparently, his teammates because they seized their first lead of the season 20 seconds later.
Sykora picked off a Ducks clearing attempt in the right-wing corner and threw a cross-ice feed to Malkin, who was unchecked at the left side of the crease and steered the puck past Hiller to make it 3-2. Kunitz tied the game on a short-handed breakaway at 6:18 of the third, but Sykora and Malone manufactured the goals the Penguins needed for their first victory of the season. And a major confidence boost.
"It feels good," Crosby said. "Especially against them."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published October 7, 2007 4:15 AM