Ron Cook: Malkin pops out of slump



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Opposing teams in a Stanley Cup playoff series rarely agree on anything, but the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets found common ground heading into Game 6 Monday night at Nationwide Arena.

"It's tough to think that you're going to keep them shut out. I don't know if you can do that. They're too good. Those are dangerous guys," Columbus coach Todd Richards said of Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"I think it's a matter of time before one of 'em pops one in," Penguins center Brandon Sutter said.

It didn't take Malkin long to make Richards and Sutter seem clairvoyant. He scored his first goal of the series to give the Penguins an early 1-0 lead, but he hardly stopped there. Good thing, darn good thing. Malkin popped in two more goals for his second career postseason hat trick to give the Penguins a 4-0 lead in the second period, a cushion they, almost unbelievably, needed after the Blue Jackets scored three goals in a span of 4:52 in the final 10 minutes of the game. Somehow, the Penguins survived for a 4-3 win that sent them into the second round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers.

Malkin sounded as if he didn't know whether to celebrate his big game or cry about the rough finish that brought back horrible nightmares from the Penguins' late collapse in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4.

"We win this game, but, in the NHL playoffs, you never win when you don't play 60 minutes," he said.

Think about it.

It makes a lot of sense.

A lot of hockey experts said the Penguins couldn't take out the Blue Jackets without getting a goal from Crosby or Malkin. The Penguins are thrilled they didn't have to put that theory to a test. Crosby didn't score a goal in the series and hasn't scored in 11 consecutive playoff games, going back to Game 4 of the Ottawa series a year ago. But Malkin ended a nine-game postseason slump with his goals.

"It's more important that we win the game," he said.

Linemate Chris Kunitz, like Sutter, said it was just a matter of time before Malkin scored.

"If you know Geno and have seen him struggle, you wouldn't think that this was one of those times," Kunitz said. "He still was confident playing with the puck. He blocks shots. He tries to mix it up. He hangs on to the puck. It's become such a puck-possession game and he's great at that ...

"Whenever we need goals from him, they're going to come."

Malkin got the first one at 9:11 of the first period, banging in a sweet centering pass from Kunitz. He gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead with a power-play goal four minutes later after a pass from Crosby with Kunitz screening Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. He made it 4-0 at 15:22 of the second period, keeping the puck on a 2-on-1 break with James Neal and firing a wrist shot by Bobrovsky.

"He's got so much talent," teammate Craig Adams said of Malkin. "Obviously, it was good for him to score that first one early. From then on, you could see that he was really feeling it."

Who knew at the time that Malkin's third goal would turn out to be the game-winner?

"A win is a win, but we need to talk about how we finished," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

For the second consecutive game, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma played Malkin with Crosby and Kunitz. He loved the results -- Malkin's three goals and an assist each for Crosby and Kunitz.

"They were tough to handle," Bylsma said of his big-three line. "They took over and were dominant."

Certainly, Malkin was. He delivered the 14th postseason hat trick in Penguins history. His first came in Game 2 against Carolina in the Eastern Conference final in 2009. The Penguins went on to win the Cup that season and Malkin was named Conn Smythe Award winner as playoffs MVP. The team hopes the story this season ends the same way.

But first things first.

The Rangers or the Flyers.

The Penguins can't win that series without a goal from Crosby, can they?

"His will come," Adams said. "I wouldn't bet against him."

Clairvoyant?

The Penguins love to think so.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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