RALEIGH, N.C. | The Pittsburgh Penguins survived the Washington Capitals in seven games without superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby both playinh consistently super at the same time. One game Crosby would be great, and the next it would be Malkin.
Both are dominating in this Eastern Conference final against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Penguins look scary in their quest for a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Malkin had two goals and an assist and Crosby added a goal and an assist Saturday night as the Penguins easily defeated the Hurricanes 6-2 at sold-out RBC Center to forge a 3-0 lead in this series.
“When they are playing like that - playing well in the defensive zone and getting into the offensive zone - it is easy to keep putting them back out there, that is for sure,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Matt Cullen put the Hurricanes on the board first thanks to a pass from below the goal line by Patrick Eaves at 4:06 of the first period, but the lead was short-lived.
Malkin leveled the score less than three minutes later with the Penguins on the power play. Tim Gleason tried to backhand the puck out of danger, but it hit Malkin in the chest and he had a clear path to the net.
The teams traded chances for a while, but the Penguins asserted themselves in the final minutes of the period and the Hurricanes broke late. Crosby drove the net and backhanded in a perfect one-bounce pass from Bill Guerin on a two-on-two rush with 42.2 seconds left in the period.
It was Crosby’s league-leading 14th goal of this postseason, which is five from the record for one playoff year - Philadelphia’s Reggie Leach had 19 in 1976 and Edmonton’s Jari Kurri equaled the feat in 1985.
Malkin added another tally with 11.9 seconds left. Another failed Hurricanes attempt to clear the puck led to Malkin collecting the puck along the right wall near the goal line, and he took a direct route to the net before tucking a shot inside the near post for his 12th of these playoffs.
“Especially in the first period there with the way the building was and they get the lead, but to be able to answer back and end the first period 3-1 was certainly a lift for us,” Bylsma said.
After Sergei Samsonov pulled Carolina within one early in the third period, Malkin left a drop pass for Ruslan Fedotenko, and his tally restored the two-goal advantage at 11:29 and the Penguins added a pair of insurance markers late.
The dynamic duo has dominated this series. They have combined for 14 points in three games (Malkin has six goals and nine points, Crosby has added two and five).
Last season Crosby and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg lead all playoff scorers with 27 points. Malkin has 28 already and Crosby has 26. No other player has more than Alex Ovechkin’s 21 - and no other skater still playing has more than Detroit’s Johan Franzen, who has 18.
Part of the reason for their success is increased playing time. Since Ovechkin’s knee-on-knee collision with Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar in Game 4 of the Washington-Pittsburgh showdown last round, Bylsma has dressed 11 forwards and seven defenseman.
By doing so, both Crosby and Malkin earn extra even-strength shifts as the team’s rotating fourth-line center (Jordan Staal collects a couple as well), and the Penguins have continued their domination of five-on-five play from the series against the Caps during this round.
At different points during the past three seasons, previous coach Michel Therrien would pair Crosby and Malkin together at even strength when he felt his team needed an offensive spark - much the same way Caps coach Bruce Boudreau would put Ovechkin and Alexander Semin together.
Bylsma has done it less, and he has rarely needed to in this postseason because of the team’s five-on-five success. Keeping them apart has been a pick-your-poison proposition for opponents.
“We’re not as quick as we need to be defending them,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. “You don’t want to be chasing that team. They play well enough defensively, and when they have a breakdown the goaltender is there. They don’t need very many opportunities.”