Evgeni Malkin on Tuesday night scored and picked up an assist in his return from a lower-body injury, while Sidney Crosby got his 999th career point with an assist as the Pittsburgh Penguins rolled by the Vancouver Canucks 4-0.
The quality Mike Sullivan appreciates the most in Malkin is the one that separates the Pittsburgh Penguins star from just about everyone else who happens to do what Malkin does for a living.
“He’s such a threat when he’s on the ice,” Sullivan said. “He’s one of the elite players in the league that has the ability to change the outcome.”
And do it with style. Malkin celebrated his return from injury with his 23rd goal of the season, then added a beautiful feed that set up Phil Kessel’s third-period goal.
Crosby earned the 999th point of his career with an assist on Jake Guentzel’s goal and Matt Cullen added his ninth of the season for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Matt Murray stopped 29 shots for his third shutout of the season as the Penguins remained unbeaten in regulation since the All-Star break (5-0-2).
Malkin missed seven games while recovering from an injury sustained during a victory over St Louis on Jan. 24. He appeared ready to return on Saturday last week in Arizona before Sullivan made Malkin a late scratch just to be sure.
Given another couple of days to rest, Malkin picked up right where he left off before getting hurt. He gave Pittsburgh the lead 5 minutes, 51 seconds into the second when he stood on the far post, stopped a pass from Olli Maatta with his right skate and tapped it into the net.
“I tried to score with my stick, because sometimes [if it’s] off your skates, the coach makes a challenge,” Malkin said. “I know the puck was coming.”
Vancouver’s defense could not say the same when Malkin and Kessel broke in on Ryan Miller late in the third. Racing down the right wing, Malkin dangled the puck on his stick and waited while defenseman Luca Sbisa slid harmlessly out of the way before slipping it Kessel, who buried it into the open net to make it 3-0.
“The first time we went two-on-one, I tried to pass to him and he tried to pass it back and it didn’t work,” Malkin said. “Now I passed to him and he shoot. It’s more fun.”
Miller made 38 saves while under siege for most of the night, particularly in the third as Pittsburgh pulled away.
“We knew what game we had to play,” Miller said. “You saw what happened when we got away from it in the third. We started stretching things out and leaving good ice. It didn’t turn out so well.”
Despite a series of injuries, the defending Stanley Cup champions have managed to keep pace in the supremely tight Metropolitan Division, where Pittsburgh, Columbus and the New York Rangers are separated by only two points as they try to keep first-place Washington in striking distance.
Murray was spectacular at times. He snagged Jack Skille’s wrist shot on a breakaway out of midair late in the second and stoned Skille again when he skated in all alone early in the third.
By then, the Penguins were firmly in control after Crosby set up Guentzel’s sixth of the season. The Penguins captain came in having gone scoreless in consecutive games for the first time in nearly a year.
The drought was on its way to stretching to three games heading into the third, but Crosby nudged closer to becoming the 86th NHL player with 1,000 points when he completed a give-and-go by feeding a streaking Guentzel down the slot 2 minutes, 27 seconds into the third.
“It’s pretty easy when you’re playing with the best player,” said Guentzel, a rookie who has six goals in 18 games.
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