It’s hard to believe that scarcely seven days ago observers (like me) were ready to shovel dirt on the Penguins following their sixth-straight loss. What a difference a week makes. In arguably their finest effort of the season, the piping-hot Pens rode the stellar goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and another big-time performance by Evgeni Malkin to a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Determined to make a statement against the front-running Rangers, the visitors bolted from the starting gate like a pack of Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds. Just past the three-minute mark Paul Martin sailed down the slot and banged the puck off Henrik Lundqvist’s pads. Chris Kunitz pounced on the rebound and blew it past “King Henrik” for his first goal in eight games.
Buoyed by the return of star defenseman Kris Letang, the black and gold piled up an early 8-0 edge on the shot clock. However, the tide began to turn following a fight between Eric Tangradi and New York’s Stu Bickel. Soon the physical Rangers were imposing their will. Brandon Dubinsky made it his personal mission to rough up Malkin at every turn.
“The Rangers were coming at him in the first period,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. “You could tell that was something they were planning on doing. He stuck with it. He kept playing the right way.”
Nor was Fleury spared the Rangers’ wrath. After Brandon Prust drove the Pens’ goalie into the end boards, “Flower” responded with several big saves in the closing moments of the period to preserve the Pens’ 1-0 lead. But midway through the second period New York knotted the score on a goal by rookie Carl Hagelin.
Entering the final 20 minutes the contest was up for grabs. The Pens broke the deadlock at 2:23 on a beautiful bit of teamwork. Defenseman Matt Niskanen headmanned the puck up the right sideboards to Matt Cooke, who dished a pretty backhand pass to Deryk Engelland in the high slot. Known more for his fistic prowess than his playmaking, the rugged defender quickly fed Richard Park below the left circle. The little forward one-timed the puck past Lundqvist for the go-ahead goal.
Malkin made sure the Penguins didn’t squander their momentum. With seven minutes to play the mercurial Russian stole the puck from Marc Staal along the left-wing boards, sliced past Michael Del Zotto and whipped a backhander under the crossbar. After the Pens killed off a late hooking penalty to Niskanen, “Geno” drilled his 24th goal into an empty net.
“We deserved to win because we played better in the third period,” Malkin said. “We shoot more and we have scoring chances more. It’s a great feeling, but we play (Friday) and we need to play the same again.”
Malkin was voted the No. 1 star … Geno (seven goals in four games) leads the NHL scoring race with 54 points … Fleury (30 saves) was named No. 2 star … The Penguins out-shot the Rangers 35-31 … Letang (an assist) earned the No. 3 star … Ben Lovejoy sat out to make room for “Tanger” … Park’s goal was the 99th of his NHL career … Arron Asham missed his second-straight game with concussion-like symptoms … Asham, Sidney Crosby, Simon Despres, Lovejoy, and Jordan Staal were scratches.
The Penguins (25-17-4) return home to face Montreal (17-21-8) on Friday night. The Pens have beaten the Canadiens twice this season.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.