PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN) — Evgeni Malkin’s assault on the rest of the National Hockey League continued Thursday, as he scored two goals in a 5-1 Pittsburgh win against Nashville at Consol Energy Center.
The win clinched a playoff berth for the Penguins, who moved to within one point of the New York Rangers for first place in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division.
Malkin now has a commanding 10-point lead on Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux for the NHL scoring lead with 45 goals, 95 points.
“I thought we played really well, came out hard,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, according to the team’s official website. “I don’t think 5-1 is an indication of where the Nashville Predators played tonight. They had a lot of good things happen, making a lot of plays happen and they were tough to handle defensively. We felt that the whole game long.”
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 of Nashville’s 30 shots and recorded his NHL-leading 40th win.
“It’s nice (to get win No. 40), especially with Pekka Rinne, he was at 39, too,” Fleury said. “I’m pretty happy to get it. I feel pretty fortunate to be playing on a good team like this. We have a great defense. I am lucky to be playing here in Pittsburgh with these guys. It’s just nice to reach that mark.”
Malkin scored the game’s opening goal just 1:23 in with a slap shot that clipped Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne’s glove and fluttered into the cage. Malkin struck quickly in the third period as well, scoring just 2:03 in for a commanding 5-1 Penguins lead.
The Predators played well throughout the game but made some costly mistakes that Pittsburgh took advantage of.
Pascal Dupuis scored his 22nd of the season after Nashville failed to get the puck out of its own zone. Kris Letang gathered the disc at the blue line and threw it on net, where Dupuis was able to deflect it home for a 2-0 lead just 4:06 in.
While the Penguins were cashing in on their chances, Nashville was failing to convert on the other end. Three different times in the first period Fleury was sprawling face down in the crease to stop pucks. None resulted in a goal for the Predators.
Matt Cooke scored 1:58 into the second period when a Nashville clearing attempt was mistakenly sent right to James Neal. He picked it off, steered toward the net and left a one-touch drop pass for Cooke, who easily potted his 17th goal of the season and a 3-0 lead.
It set a new career-high goals mark for Cooke in a single season.
“’Duper’ and I are good friends and trying to push each other,” Cooke said. “It seems like each time I score he scores or vice versa. It’s fun. It’s fun to go through and get some career highs with guys you love playing with.”
Shortly after, Deryk Engelland failed on a clearing attempt that resulted in a wide open net and the puck on Nashville forward Nick Spaling’s stick. He got good wood on the puck but sent it a few inches wide.
As was the theme of the night, Chris Kunitz picked up a Nashville turnover just minutes later and rushed the other way on an odd-man break. Kunitz tossed the puck toward Sidney Crosby, who was charging to the far post, but it deflected off Nashville defenseman Shea Weber’s skate and in for a 4-0 Penguins lead with 12:25 left in the period.
Alexander Radulov, who was playing in his first NHL game since leaving for the KHL four years ago, scored before the second intermission, but it didn’t do much to thwart the Penguins attack.
The Penguins improved to 13-2-3 against the Western Conference with Thursday night’s win.
“When you make your goals at the beginning of the year, that’s not one of them for our team,” Bylsma said. “Division is one, getting in the playoffs, putting yourself in a position to win the Stanley Cup and with the Stanley Cup. Our goal’s not being first in the league and points total. We’re going to keep trying to get first in our division. We’re one point behind right now and we play the Rangers again and that probably means we are going to be first in our division and first in our conference so that’s something we are shooting for.”