“Where the hell have you been Jimmy Braddock?”
Actor Paul Giamatti, playing the part of fight manager Joe Gould in the movie Cinderella Man, exclaimed those very words after watching his down-but-not-out fighter dismantle No. 2 heavyweight contender Corn Griffin.
I would imagine coach Mike Sullivan uttered a similar phrase on the Penguins’ bench last night after seeing Nick Bonino notch his third goal of the game and second career hat trick.
While “Bones” may have been the star of the game, he wasn’t the lead story.
That honor fell to Evgeni Malkin. In as gutsy and clutch a performance as I can recall since the days of Kevin Stevens, “Geno” scored two huge goals and added an assist to pace the Pens to a scintillating 7-4 triumph over a Winnipeg team that had everything to play for and everything to gain.
How gutsy and clutch? Let me count the ways.
Meeting the enemy head-on, the big Russian stepped to the fore by dropping the gloves with Blake Wheeler early in the contest. For those with short memories, Malkin had laid out the Jets’ captain with a borderline hit the last time the teams met.
Geno didn’t win the battle—he seemed to purposely refrain from throwing punches—but his courageous, team-first move diffused a potentially explosive situation and delivered a not-so-subtle message to Wheeler and his mates.
You won’t have to go looking for me. I’m right here.
Talk about a leader. Front and center.
In case the Jets still had their dander up, Sullivan wisely deployed burly left wing Tom Sestito on the very next shift. The Pens’ heavyweight had a few choice words for Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien, who’d injured star defenseman Justin Schultz the last time out.
My guess is, he wasn’t discussing the weather.
Hey Big Buff, want a knuckle sandwich? Lay off my guys.
Big Tom found a taker in Jets tough guy and former Pen Chris Thorburn. The heavies tangled for nearly a minute, swapping rights, lefts and the occasional uppercut in spirited fashion.
Old scores appropriately settled, the adversaries got down to business. With Pens goalie Matt Murray fighting the puck for a second-straight outing, the Jets snatched a 2-1 lead, to the delight of the prairie denizens at MTS Centre.
Malkin made another statement. This time with his stick. The big center took a long lead pass from Phil Kessel and wired the puck past Jets goalie Connor Hellebucyk to knot the score at 2-2. Byfuglien countered for Winnipeg, thanks in part to a major penalty issued to Sestito for blasting poor Toby Enstrom into the boards.
The Jets held the lead until the midpoint of the game, when the Penguins took charge with a frightful burst of offensive fury. Working on a 5-on-3 power play, Schultz blew the puck past Hellebucyk at 9:09 of the second period.
Bonino, seemingly reborn following a motivational talk with Sullivan, struck 20 seconds later. The bearded center relieved defenseman Ben Chariot of the puck and beat a beleaguered Hellebucyk with a sizzler to the stick side.
Then Geno delivered the knockout punch…and eventual game winner. Outmuscling Mark Scheifele in the slot, No. 71 spun to his forehand and scored from close range.
Three goals in 57 seconds. Exit Hellebucyk. And any hope of a Jets victory.
Bonino wove a little HBK magic—and sent a few hats a flyin’—with a short-side marker off a crisp diagonal feed from Chad Ruhwedel late in the second period. His 12th goal of the season and second power-play tally of the night.
Jake Guentzel closed out the scoring for the black-and-gold at 16:02 of the third before Marko Dano replied late for the Jets.
It all started with Malkin.
“He’s a brave guy, he’s a competitive guy and I thought he played hard tonight,” Sullivan said.
Geno registered a Gordie Howe Hat Trick (a goal, assist and fight). The big center has 31 goals and 70 points—tied for the team lead with Sidney Crosby.
Schultz’s goal was his 12th of the season, a new career-high. He scored 11 for Edmonton in 2013-14.
Ruhwedel enjoyed a three-assist night. He finished the game a plus-2, as did Malkin. Conor Sheary and Mark Streit collected two assists each. Murray recovered from his shaky start to make 31 saves.
Patric Hornqvist returned to Pittsburgh after being diagnosed with a concussion. No timetable has been set for his return.