SUNRISE, Fla. — As debates go, this was one the Penguins couldn’t lose.
“Our best player was Jeff Zatkoff,” coach Dan Bylsma said of his rookie backup goaltender, who made 39 saves in a 5-1 win against the Florida Panthers Saturday night at BB&T Center.
That designation also could have gone to Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who dominated offensively and finished with a goal and three assists as the Penguins won their third game in a row. With 35 points, Malkin has climbed to within one of teammate Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead.
Zatkoff and Malkin were the cornerstones, in any order, despite being outshot, 40-22, They were opportunistic offensively and were kept in the game by Zatkoff.
Not many weeks ago, Malkin was in a slump of sorts. He was getting assists, but he went 15 games without a goal. Now he has four goals, 13 points in the past six games.
“He made it official” Saturday that the slump is over, said center Joe Vitale, who scored what proved to be the winning goal and the only one of the five by the Penguins on which Malkin didn’t get a point.
“It’s fun seeing him play,” Vitale said of Malkin. “He’s got a little bit different attitude on the bench. He’s having fun now. Him and [linemate James Neal] are joking around. That’s what it’s about.”
Neal missed all but a few shifts of the first 16 games because of injury. Since Neal returned Nov. 9, Malkin has 21 points in 12 games and is a prime candidate to be named the NHL’s player of the month
Neal isn’t far behind in production lately, with six goals, 12 points in the past seven games, including a goal against the Panthers set up by rigorous forechecking by Malkin.
“Thanks to [Neal],” Malkin said. “He came back, and I started playing a little bit better.”
Malkin had an assist a night earlier in the Penguins’ 3-0 win at Tampa Bay, but he admittedly was distracted that game because he got a minor penalty for having the back of his jersey tucked in, a violation of a new rule.
“I don’t like this rule,” Malkin said. “I hope it’s changed next year. … We played a hundred years with the same rules.
“I’m trying to not focus on my jersey [Friday], but [when] they called me, I don’t think about my game; I think about my jersey every shift.”
The Penguins made an unspecified alteration to Malkin’s uniform, and there was no distraction against the Panthers.
Malkin balked at a suggestion that he is at the top of his game, saying he needs to continue to shoot more, but he didn’t shy away from the idea of being in a chase for the league scoring title with Crosby, who was held without a point for the first time in four games.
“It’s a good battle, a friendly battle, but it’s a long season,” Malkin said. “It doesn’t matter who wins. We just focus on every game.”
Malkin got an assist on Chris Kunitz’s power-play goal that opened the scoring at 10:45 of the first period.
Vitale made it 2-0 with his first goal this season at 11:17 of the first period by crashing the crease near the left goal post on a play that held up under review. The puck squirted across the line before a Florida skater swept it out of the net.
“It was a long time coming, for sure,” Vitale said. “Happy to contribute and get on the board finally.”
Malkin then finished off a feed from defenseman Olli Maatta on a rush play to make it 3-0 at 7:23 of the second period.
Scottie Upshall spoiled Zatkoff’s bid for a second shutout in five career starts by lifting a backhander over Zatkoff’s blocker at 17:53 of the second period, but the Penguins came back 29 seconds later to make it 4-1 on Neal’s goal.
Finally, a forechecking Malkin stole the puck from Florida defenseman Erik Gudbrunson and set up Jussi Jokinen for the Penguins’ fifth goal at 6:10 of the third period.
Zatkoff smiled when asked if he was glad he had Malkin on his side.
“Him, pretty much all of our forward corps,” Zatkoff said. ‘We don’t need too many opportunities to put it in the back of the net. We have a lot of skill up front. When they get a chance, they bury it most of the time.”
Zatkoff made sure the Panthers didn’t do the same, and, in so doing got some redemption. He made his NHL debut in the same building Oct. 11, a 6-3 loss in Florida’s home opener.
“Having a few games under your belt, I feel like I’m getting better every game, feeling more comfortable every game, feeling the puck,” Zatkoff said. “It was nice to get a second crack at these guys.”
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.