By Josh Cooper
The Nashville Tennessean
March 23, 2012
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by his teammates on the bench after scoring against the Nashville Predators in the third period during the game on March 22, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Cheers of “MVP” filled Consol Energy Center on Thursday evening. And forward Evgeni Malkin obliged the announced crowd of 18,579 with another superb performance.
Malkin, the NHL’s scoring leader, had two goals for the Penguins in a 5-1 victory over the Predators — clinching a playoff berth for Pittsburgh — on two blasts from the circles. One knuckled in on Pekka Rinne; the other was a hard shot that found the small opening on the corner.
“He was dynamite,” Predators Coach Barry Trotz said. “If I had to vote today, there is no question he would be MVP for me. I saw him once up close, and he was great.”
With forward Sidney Crosby missing all but 13 games this season with a concussion, Malkin has needed to provide offense for Pittsburgh. After Thursday’s game, Malkin had 95 points in 66 games.
“He’s one of the better players in the world, and he teed it up a few times tonight and put it in,” Rinne said. “I have to be better, but you have to respect that guy’s skill, too.”
Malkin might have had some extra motivation. He and Predators forward Alexander Radulov — who played his first game in the NHL since 2008 — are good friends. The two conversed both before and after the game in the basement of the arena.
Radulov and Malkin were both drafted in 2004. Malkin was the second pick and Radulov was the 15th selection. Malkin has won the Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
“He’s unbelievable. What do you want me to say? He’s one of the best in the NHL right now, so, (good) for him,” Radulov said. “When they won the Stanley Cup, he was playing the same. He was playing the best.”
Fluke goals: For a team that prides itself on defense, the Predators have given up goals early and often in the past two games.
In their loss to the Penguins, some of those goals were fluky. In addition to Malkin’s first score, Chris Kuntiz’s goal bounced off Shea Weber’s skate.
Nashville has allowed 11 goals in its past two games.
“We’re just not committed enough defensively,” Weber said. “I think we’re too worried about scoring goals. We need to figure out that our main priority is playing defense. We’re talented enough to score goals. Right now we’re thinking offense first and not defense.”
Gaustad out: Forward Paul Gaustad (upper body) is targeting Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets as a return date. Gaustad said he could have played Thursday, but the coaching staff thought it was better to rest him.
“We made the decision to make sure everything was 100 percent,” Gaustad said. “I’m looking at Saturday. I would like to help out right now. But long term going toward the playoffs it would be the best decision to stay off the ice tonight.”
New city: When Steve Sullivan signed with the Penguins last summer, his family came with him.
Sullivan has four young children, so the decision to move the family from Nashville — a place they called home since 2004, when he was traded to the Predators — didn’t come lightly. After he retires, however, Sullivan plans to move back to Nashville.
Still, the family is enjoying its time here.
“The transition has been pretty seamless,” said Sullivan, who had an assist in 13:56 of ice time Thursday. “They’ve been huge troopers. My kid, the oldest one, is getting older. He had some roots in Nashville and having to make that transition wasn’t easy, but they’re happy now, and I’m proud of how they’ve been able to adjust.”
Reach Josh Cooper