Rabu, 18 Januari 2012

Malkin-Neal-Kunitz line best show in town

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 18, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) celebrates with Chris Kunitz (14) and James Neal, right, after scoring in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. (AP - Gene Puskar)

Semi-desperately seeking their first home victory of the calendar year, the Penguins brought back to Pittsburgh the highly accommodating Carolina Hurricanes, the previous team they were somehow able to beat at Consol Energy Center, should you happen to remember late 2011.

Pitt should try this very thing in basketball by putting in an emergency call to Saint Francis (not the actual saint, although that couldn't hurt), as Saint Francis is the most recent team Pitt beat in town, there, or anywhere.

I hesitate to drag Pitt into this, and it's really only because the Penguins missed so many open nets Tuesday night it just reminded me so acutely of Pitt's inside game.

Through two periods, the only Penguins player who didn't miss was the again resplendent Evgeni Malkin, who caught Eric Staal's clearing effort in his skates near the bottom of the right faceoff circle and flicked it over the near shoulder of Carolina goaltender Cam Ward at 18:38 of the first period.

All that did for the moment was erect a 1-1 tie that would persist all the way to the other side of overtime, but it also buttressed the swelling notion that the best show in Pittsburgh at the moment and probably in all of hockey is the spectacle of Malkin skating with James Neal and Chris Kunitz.

Theirs is deep-zone, high-precision, connect-the-dots hockey at its perspicacious best right now. Each of them seems to know without visual evidence the exact location, direction and intention of the other two, backhanding the puck blindly to coordinates programmed into their hockey intelligence.

Or something.

"It's amazing," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said of No. 71 [Malkin] after the morning skate, "how long he can carry the puck."

For all of that, the Penguins more resembled the team that left town last week with six goals in its previous six games, not so much the one which whipped two teams on two Florida coasts in three days and scored 10 times in the process, the final three off the blade of Malkin.

Still, when they fought off back-to-back-to-back Hurricanes power plays, the latter one on a suspect interference call against Brooks Orpik as he leveled Carolina's Jeff Skinner, the looming shootout brought nothing remotely ominous, only the raging confidence with which Malkin and Neal and Kunitz are currently electrifying this team.

"[Tuesday night Carolina] had a matchup line and an [assigned] defensive pairing against them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, "but when they play like there are, they're scoring goals on the forecheck, playing very physical and playing with the puck, it's very hard to totally keep them away from the puck. The way Geno can do that it's hard to keep him out of the offensive zone.

"That's just a tough matchup anyway you look at it. That's a challenge."

The challenge would eventually fall to Ward, generally one of the Penguins' established net-minding nemeses; he was 11-5-2 with a 2.41 goals-against average against the Penguins when the puck dropped Tuesday night, but when the shootout started, he was at the exclusive mercy of Malkin, Kunitz and Neal in that order.

Malkin took the first turn, carrying the puck in a long languid loop to his right and then back between the circles, from where he drew Ward into his web and beat him with a backhand. Jussi Jokinen evened things with an almost identical victimization of Fleury, and then Kunitz and Skinner failed with wristers that thumped into pads.

To the spotlight came Neal, or actually to extreme stage left, as he started his approach almost 180 feet away in his own left circle. Like Malkin, Neal swung wide right in the offensive zone, floated back toward the middle and buried it. That put Fleury in position to win it if he could stop Staal, whose backhand he smothered in front of the goal line.

Malkin said there was nothing premeditated about the circuitous routes he and Neal took to the goal cage in the shootout, but it was only further proof that they seem to telepathically compatible as the overall Penguins profile has begun to right itself.

"It was not a game plan, we were just using our speed," Malkin said in a game he pulled even with Vancouver's Henrik Sedin for the NHL scoring lead with 52 points. "That's long to not win at home [since Dec. 27] and we always play a hard game against Carolina."

Unfortunately, much like Saint Francis, Carolina has other commitments. The Penguins now must visit Madison Square Garden in New York, where on Thursday night the Rangers will provide a much more comprehensive test of their viability.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author

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