It wasn’t too long ago Evgeni Malkin was muddling through a sluggish start to his season.
His struggle is clearly over now, with the latest evidence being the four points he piled up in the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday at BB&T Center. Malkin, who has cut teammate Sidney Crosby‘s lead in the NHL scoring race to one point, has 17 points during his current eight-game scoring streak.
Malkin’s one-goal, three-assist output Saturday gave him 25 points in his last 15 games and 35 for the season. He set up Chris Kunitz‘ first-period power-play goal, scored one of his own on a breathtaking rush in the second, then earned primary assists on goals by James Neal and Jussi Jokinen as the Penguins (18-9-1, 37 points) won their third in a row in runaway fashion.
Neal has been the primary beneficiary of Malkin’s scoring burst, netting seven goals and six assists in his previous seven contests. Rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff certainly didn’t mind all the offensive support, stopping 39 shots to top the Panthers (7-15-5, 19 points) in his second start of the season in South Florida.
Kunitz netted his third goal in as many nights – the winger had two in Friday’s 3-0 win in Tampa – by tapping home a loose puck midway through the first period. Joe Vitale nudged the rebound of Jayson Megna‘s shot past Panthers goalie Tim Thomas less than a minute later, stretching the Penguins lead to 2-0 on his first goal of the season.
Olli Maatta worked a give-and-go with Malkin for Pittsburgh’s third goal 7 1/2 minutes into the second. Malkin took Maatta’s return feed in the left circle and deked around Thomas to stuff his seventh goal into the open net. Florida’s Scottie Upshall scored a pretty power-play tally with 2:07 left in the second, but Neal deposited a nifty Malkin pass behind a befuddled Thomas 29 seconds later for a 4-1 Penguins advantage.
Jokinen capped the scoring 6:10 into the third with his first goal in nearly a month. Malkin stole Florida’s attempted clear and hit Jokinen between the circles for a one-timer past backup goalie Scott Clemmensen.
Zatkoff was at his best late, as the Panthers fired 16 shots in the final 20 minutes but couldn’t crawl any closer. Florida outshot Pittsburgh 40-22 despite getting outplayed for much of the evening.
After playing 11 games in the final 18 days of November, the Penguins will have two days off before traveling to Long Island on Tuesday. Faceoff with the Islanders is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.