Maybe my title—lifted from an old James Bond flick—isn’t politically correct. Especially given the heightened intrigue and tension present between east and west in our world today. But it sure was nice to see Evgeni Malkin back in the Penguins’ lineup last night.
Like a giant Sukhoi Superjet swooping in from Moscow’s Sheremetyovo International, “Geno” blanketed the PPG Paints Arena ice, banging in the all-important first goal off a hard feed by Olli Maatta and setting up Phil Kessel’s third-period kill shot on a 2-on-1 with a spectacular sleight of hand.
A vintage effort that harkened back to his MVP season of 2011-12, when No. 71 dominated the sport like few others.
“You watch him play,” said Kessel in admiration. “He’s a special player. That’s why he’s one of the top players in the game…you watch what he does out there, he’s special.”
Malkin had help. Indeed, it required a total team effort to sink the determined but ultimately outgunned Vancouver Canucks by a 4-0 count.
Star No. 2 Matt Murray, razor sharp, stopped 29 shots to record his third shutout of the season. Technically still a rookie, Murray thwarted back-to-back chances by Chris Tanev and Reid Boucher midway through the opening period and robbed Jack Skille with a nifty glove save early in the second on a clear-cut breakaway.
“Murr really saved us,” said Maatta.
Sidney Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist hounded the visitors to the tune of 15 shots on goal. Executing a textbook give and go with Crosby, Guentzel netted his sixth goal of the season at 2:27 of the final period off a beautiful return pass from Sid. The latter’s 999th career point.
“Sid’s line, although I don’t think they’ve gotten rewarded on the score sheet the last few games for what they’re doing out there, they’ve created a lot of opportunities,” observed Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ve really liked the line and what it’s been generating offensively.”
The defense stood tall, too. Kris Letang unleashed four shots and assisted on Matt Cullen’s third-period marker. Maatta, tentative and unsure for much of the campaign, played his finest game in recent memory, flashing his old confidence and poise. Not to mention a surprising physical edge.
The victory enabled the Pens to stay one step ahead of Friday night’s foe, Columbus, and the streaking Rangers, winners of six in row, in the race for second place in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
It all started with the big fella.
“It was a good win for us,” said Malkin.
The Penguins won 59 percent of the faceoffs last night, marking the second straight game of improvement. The black and gold won 57 percent of the draws during last Saturday’s overtime loss to the Coyotes.
Malkin bumped Eric Fehr to the press box. Carter Rowney filled Fehr’s slot on the reconfigured fourth line between fellow call-up Josh Archibald and Tom Kuhnhackl.
In other hockey news, the Montreal Canadiens fired coach Michel Therrien yesterday. The former Pens skipper guided the Habs to 194-121-37 record in his second stint as Canadiens coach, including a 50-win season in 2014-15.
He was replaced by Claude Julien, recently dismissed by Boston. Julien also succeeded Therrien in Montreal back in 2002-03.