COLUMBUS, OHIO — The wait was worth it.
For nine straight postseason games, Evgeni Malkin had a zero stuck next to his name under the “goal” column. For two years, he hadn’t recorded a hat trick. For four years, he hadn’t caused those hats to fly in the postseason.
All of that changed Monday night when his team needed it the most.
Malkin’s first postseason hat trick since the 2009 postseason — and his first three-goal game in two years — sparked the Penguins 4-3 win over Columbus to finish off the series in six games.
“I scored first goal and (got) more confidence,” Malkin said. “Just shoot (the) puck. I know it’s coming again.”
Frequent linemate James Neal had a sense this was coming.
“You could see it coming from the morning skate,” Neal said. “Everything he shot was going into the back of the net.”
Neal had been in Malkin’s ear lately, telling the former MVP to shoot more often. Following Monday’s game, Malkin playfully brushed off the suggestion that Neal convinced him to fire the puck on the net more frequently.
“No, Nealer wants (the) puck,” Malkin said. “When we go 2-on-1, he says ‘Open, open open.’ But I know (I can) score.”
Like Sidney Crosby, Malkin has struggled with injuries since winning the Cup in 2009. After that dominant year, where he won his first scoring title and Conn Smythe award, Malkin missed 54 games over the next two seasons. He returned healthy again in 2011-12 to capture the scoring title again as well as his first Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, but playoff success has been as elusive as consistent health.
Game 6 was flash back to those vintage Malkin performances. On his first goal, Malkin patiently waited as Chris Kunitz dug out the puck along the boards, then flashed to the side of the net. He wristed the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky’s blocker and stick for the goal.
Four minutes later, he struck again. Matt Niskanen saved the puck from escaping the zone on the power play and fed Sidney Crosby on the wing. Malkin slid into the slot and fired a Crosby pass underneath the crossbar.
“Confidence is everything,” Neal said. “I guess you could call it being in the zone, and it’s a good place to be.”
If there was any doubt Malkin was in the zone, it was erased on his third goal. Malkin took a breakout pass from Jussi Jokinen to go 2-on-1 with Neal, and it was clear that he was taking the shot the entire time.
“I know it was James Neal, but I was pretty sure Evgeni Malkin was shooting on that two-on-one,” Dan Bylsma said. “You kind of got that sense and feeling.”
It’s a feeling the Penguins would love to have frequently in the second round. And it’s one Malkin said he’d love to acquire earlier than he did against Columbus.
“I think more importantly we won the game and the series is done,” Malkin said. “When you score, you feel so much better. You have more confidence. I hope (in) second round I score (in the) first game.”