Sidney Crosby may be considered the driving force behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Evgeni Malkin never ceases to amaze with his creativity.
Malkin's magic was on full display Thursday night as he registered his first playoff hat trick in a 7-4 victory over the visiting Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final at Mellon Arena.
"It was a great game for me," he grinned.
Malkin, who won the scoring title with 113 points this season, finished with four points, capping the performance — and the hat trick — with an uncanny goal.
Malkin won a faceoff in the offensive zone and pushed the puck toward the boards in the corner, where he collected it off the carom and circled the net for a wraparound at the left post.
But rather than sweep right into the slot, the lanky Russian twisted left and lifted a blind backhand under the crossbar past a startled Cam Ward.
"We have set plays on faceoffs and he told me before the draw what he was going to do — and he did it," Penguins forward Maxime Talbot said.
"It was a faceoff play and it is called The Geno [Malkin's nickname] for a reason," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma explained. "He pushed through and went and got the puck himself.
"After that, it is just all him. There aren't many players in the world can make a play like that, and two of them are on our team."
It marked Malkin's third goal on the night, fourth of the series and 10th of the playoffs, and moved him one point ahead of Crosby in the post-season scoring race with 25.
Less than four minutes earlier, Malkin smacked in a rebound to break a 4-4 deadlock.
"I tried to shoot every shift and tried to score," he said. "Tonight, I was a little bit lucky."
"He stepped up tonight," Crosby noted. "Every time he was out there he was making something happen, and it wasn't always the same way."
Malkin has five consecutive multi-point games to his credit, posting five goals and 13 points over that span.
"Not many guys can take their game to another level and it is a big boost when he does," Crosby said.
Chris Kunitz contributed one goal and two assists to Pittsburgh's attack, Crosby and Tyler Kennedy had a goal and an assist apiece, and Matt Cooke chipped in with three assists.
Talbot tallied the other goal and Bill Guerin had two assists in support of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who kicked out 24 of 28 shots for the fourth-seeded Penguins.
Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen, Dennis Seidenberg and Patrick Eaves scored for the sixth-ranked Hurricanes.
Ward was peppered with 41 shots in the setback, which ended Carolina's winning streak in Game 2's at five.
"If we don't give them any time and space, we're fine," Seidenberg said. "In the first game, they didn't get too many chances. Tonight, we gave them too many openings to create stuff."
Pittsburgh leads the best-of-seven series 2-0.
Game 3 goes Saturday at Raleigh, N.C. (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).
"This isn't going to be a four-game series, I will tell you that," Hurricanes defenceman Tim Gleason said.
Crosby equals post-season record
Crosby equalled a record held by Bobby Hull as he opened the scoring for the sixth time in a single post-season, converting a return pass from Kunitz for his team-high 13th goal just 1:51 into the contest.
The Penguins captain set up his own scoring chance by spinning to elude a check at the Hurricanes blue-line and passing the puck to Guerin, who cycled it low to Kunitz as Crosby sped to the net.
The Hurricanes responded in 76 seconds as Eric Staal spun at the base of the circle and shot the puck at the net, where Ray Whitney took a whack at it before LaRose buried the rebound.
LaRose had Carolina's first tally in Game 1, too.
Malkin restored Pittsburgh's lead 8:15 into the first period, tapping in the rebound after Philippe Boucher failed to ram the puck in the short side on Ward.
Twenty-five seconds later, Rod Brind'Amour gloved the puck behind the Penguins net and set up Scott Walker for a shot that Fleury stopped, but Jokinen tucked in the rebound for the tying goal.
The Hurricanes went ahead 3-2 at the 12:10 mark, when Seidenberg intercepted Kris Letang's clearing attempt up the middle and scored on a shot that fluttered past a screened Fleury.
"We made a few mistakes, and they caught us," Crosby said.
Pittsburgh tied it 3:11 into the second period as Crosby shovelled the puck up ice to Malkin, who sprung Talbot for a breakaway with a crafty chip pass as he was pinched against the boards.
Talbot beat Ward to the stick side with a slapshot so hard that the puck bounced off the twine and out of the net as fast as it entered.
Crosby nearly put Pittsburgh ahead with 97 seconds left in the second, pulling the puck around Hurricanes defenceman Joni Pitkanen and firing a backhand shot that Ward juggled.
The Penguins kept pressing for the go-ahead goal and were rewarded when Kunitz emerged from the corner with the puck, worked his way into open ice and scored high to the stick side with 7.3 seconds on the clock.
After Eaves found the top corner on a snap shot from the slot 2:35 into the third period, Malkin went to work.