Malkin’s big night pushes Penguins forward

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) sits on the boards during a timeout after the Columbus Blue Jackets scored three times in the 3rd period in game six of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nationwide Arena. The Penguins won the game 4-3.

Greg Bartram/Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A sure-fire sign you’ve had a good night in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Mario Lemieux waiting near the locker room entrance yelling your name.

Fifteen minutes or so after the handshakes that followed a wildly entertaining series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Lemieux raised his fist and said, "Geno!"

Geno — or Evgeni Malkin, as he’s known on the score sheet — offered a wide smile and a hug. In a series clinching 4-3 win Monday night in Game Six, Malkin became the third player in Penguins postseason history to record multiple hat-tricks. Malkin now has two.

Lemieux, a Hall of Famer and now Penguins co-owner, had three.

Monday night was about the present, though, and it was about the Penguins finishing a pesky Blue Jackets team that had embraced the underdog role and conceded very little. Finally, in Monday night’s Game Six, Malkin cashed in what he saw.

"It’s more important that we win the game and (finish) the series," Malkin said. "Going into the second round now, you feel so much better when you have confidence. I hope in the next round I can score more.

"I hope second round, I start (and) score first game"

Malkin is he second-biggest star on a Pittsburgh Penguins team that’s in the playoffs for the eighth straight year and expecting to play deep into May — at minimum. It’s a Penguins team that isn’t going deep unless Malkin and likely NHL MVP Sidney Crosby have their best. Malkin’s hat trick highlighted the kind of explosion that had only been there in stretches during the series for the Penguins — and hadn’t been there for Malkin at all. He scored for the first time in nine playoff games, though he finished this series with four assists.

Moved from his usual spot as the second centerman to the right wing on the first line alongside Crosby in Game Five, Malkin opened the scoring Monday night with a full-strength goal on pass from Chris Kunitz that found Malkin just to the right of the goal and Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in a helpless spot.

Four minutes later on a power play, a patient, sustained attack ended with a pretty pass from Crosby on the right wing to Crosby in the middle.

It was the kind of play for which the Penguins paid each Crosby and Malkin $8.7 million this season.

"Putting No. 87 (Crosby) and No. 71 (Malkin) together, that put a lot on us," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said.

Though the Blue Jackets staged a furious third-period rally from 4-0 down to make things more interesting than the Penguins wanted, the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed moves on. With Malkin and Crosby saying they’re healthy and confident and their play backing that up, the Penguins are real contenders.

"When you can’t score, you just work," Malkin said of his personal slump. "You work every day to practice and the puck will come in."

Crosby still hasn’t scored a goal in his last 11 playoff games, but the Penguins now await the Philadelphia Flyers-New York Rangers winner with a first line that’s as good as any.

"You could see it in Geno in the (Monday) morning skate," Penguins winger James Neal said. "We knew it was coming."

With what turned out to be the Penguins all-important fourth goal of the night, Malkin simply kept the puck on a two-on-one situation and blasted one past Bobrovsky.

"The line of Malkin, Crosby and Kunitz, they were tough to handle pushing forward," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We played two of our best games of the season in Games Five and Six."

It’s no coincidence that Malkin and Crosby brought their best in those games.

Or that Lemieux was so ready to greet Malkin after this latest.