By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby saw the flare in his teammate’s eye.
It was going to be hard to stop Evgeni Malkin on this afternoon.
Crosby, Malkin and Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos — three of the brightest stars in the National Hockey League – were out in full force on Saturday.
Fortunately for the Penguins, Malkin shined brightest.
Malkin assisted on James Neal’s game-winner at 1:27 of overtime, part of a three-point game as the Pittsburgh Penguins scored three power play goals en route to a 4-3 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“He was flying,” Crosby said of Malkin. “He had the puck all night, drew a lot of penalties and generated a lot of chances. You can’t stop him when he’s going like that. I wouldn’t want to be playing against him. He was a big part of our win.”
Malkin scored twice, his 22nd and 23rd of the season, and added an assist, while Crosby netted his 34th of the year and contributed a helper, adding to his league-best total of 94 points. Neal’s 23rd of the season, scored on the power play, was his third overtime goal of the year equaling a franchise record.
“We played a good game,” Malkin said. “We focused all 60 minutes.”
Pittsburgh won its ninth consecutive game against Tampa Bay and seventh straight at home, sweeping the three-game season series. The Penguins went 3-for-6 on the power play after scoring just three with the man advantage in their last seven games.
“It’s all work,” Malkin said. “We can’t score every game of course and a couple games we didn’t score. Today we played much better.”
Stamkos scored his 20th of the year and added an assist, while Valtteri Filppula scored his 24th of the year and his second goal in as many games, extending an eight-game point streak in which he has four goals and 12 points. Ondrej Palat’s 19th of the year at 1:22 of the third sent the game to overtime for the Lightning, who recorded a point in their ninth straight game for the first time since 2010, but saw their five-game win streak come to an end.
“Obviously, you want to win every game, but we’ll take the points right now,” Stamkos said.
Stamkos put the Lightning ahead, 2-1, midway through the third period with his sixth goal in five games, but Malkin responded with a power-play tally less than three minutes later for the Penguins.
Malkin, who has 12 goals and 20 points in his last eight games against Tampa Bay, picked up a loose rebound from defenseman Matt Niskanen’s point shot and put it over the left pad of Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback from the side of the net, tying the game.
Malkin did it again, netting the go-ahead goal at 8:53 of the third.
Jussi Jokinen started the play, intercepting a clearing attempt at the blueline. He sent the puck to a wide open Malkin at the top of the crease, who lifted a sharp backhander past Lindback.
“He’s so strong that when he’s on guys that quick he’s either stealing the puck or forcing them to make bad plays,” Crosby said.
The Lightning weren’t finished though.
Palat sent the game to overtime, working his way around Niskanen to score the game-tying goal with 1:22 left in the third.
“He’s a good player and he has that skill set,” Stamkos said of Palat. “It’s not surprising that this time of year he’s stepping up to make a play like that.”
Neal, Malkin and Crosby quickly came through when Tampa Bay was whistled for a too many men on the ice bench penalty in the third.
Malkin took Crosby’s pass from the left circle and sent it to Neal, who ripped a shot behind Lindback for the game-winner.
“He was so mad because he had lots of scoring chances but did not score,” Malkin said of Neal. “I’m glad he scored a big goal today.”
The Penguins own a comfortable double-digit lead for first place in the Metropolitan Division, but they’ve lost their hold on the top spot in the Eastern Conference, falling four points behind Boston after the win.
The Penguins entered Saturday dropping three of their last four, including three of the previous five at home after losing just four times throughout their first 27 home contests. Pittsburgh knocked in three of Detroit’s goals during a 5-4 overtime loss Thursday against the Red Wings, the game-winner coming with less than a second remaining.
Saturday’s win was a nice confidence boost, but won’t get any easier for the Penguins, who host St. Louis on Sunday in addition to Phoenix and Los Angeles and a road game against Columbus prior to a home showdown next week against Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“I think we realize we’re playing some good teams and it’s important for us to make sure we have that desperation and find that level of play that we want going into the playoffs,” Crosby said.
The Penguins broke the ice thanks to Crosby’s power-play goal at 14:31 of the second.
Malkin started the play, swooping down the left wing, past the Lightning defense until he reached the goal-line. Malkin dished a pass to a wide open Crosby, who blasted a shot past Lindback from the top of the circle. Penguins’ goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, who made 21 saves for the win, registered his first National Hockey League point with the second assist.
Filppula tied it, scoring his 24th of the year late in the second on the power play.
Stamkos took the puck from Victor Hedman and sent a cross-ice pass to Filppula, who one-timed a shot past an outstretched Zatkoff from the faceoff dot.
NOTES: Niskanen has a six-game home point streak… Craig Adams played in his 276th consecutive game, tying him with Nick Harbaruk for the third-longest consecutive games played streak in franchise history… Jokinen reached 50 points for the fourth time in his career and first since the 2010-11 season.