Evgeni Malkin seemed genuinely surprised by the fuss over the goal he scored Monday to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks and propel them within one victory of claiming the Stanley Cup.
Malkin had not scored a goal in six games and had scored only one in his previous 15 games, and a 6-foot-3, 195-pound forward tends to be noticed when he’s not producing. The Penguins had been winning without him, but his absence from the scoresheet was notable in a Stanley Cup Final whose first three games were each decided by one goal.
So when he got behind the Sharks’ defense during a second-period power play and was alone by the right post to tap in a clever pass from Phil Kessel for a 2-0 lead, it became a turning point even if Malkin didn’t think so.
“My goal?” he said, as if puzzled. “Phil gave me an empty net. It was not a great goal.”
Maybe not in the artistic sense, but it was as beautiful a sight for the Penguins as it was a nightmare for the Sharks.
San Jose did manage to pull within 2-1 at 8:07 of the third period, the only one of their 24 shots that got past rookie goaltender Matt Murray and then only after the initial shot struck Penguins defenseman Ian Cole and caromed to Melker Karlsson at the left circle. But with San Jose pressing for the tying goal, the Penguins scored an insurance goal by Eric Fehr at 17:58, putting them in position to win the Cup at home at Consol Energy Center on Thursday. They clinched their previous championships at Minnesota in 1991, at Chicago in 1992, and at Detroit in 2009.
Though they probably could taste the champagne, they weren’t celebrating yet.
“It’s easy to get too far ahead of yourself and it’s easy to pat yourself on the back but we haven’t done anything. We’ve given ourselves an opportunity,” veteran center Matt Cullen said. “We’ve worked hard and we’ve earned it but that’s all it is, an opportunity. And unless you come out with the attitude that you need to take advantage of it, it doesn’t matter.
They still have not trailed in regulation during the Final and they’ve met every challenge launched by the Sharks, who had an edge in shots Monday for the first time in four games but couldn’t turn enough of those shots into goals.
Much of that can be attributed to the poise of Murray. With 14 wins he’s one from tying the NHL record for wins by a rookie goalie in a single playoff year, set in 1986 by Montreal’s Patrick Roy and matched by Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall in 1987 and Carolina’s Cam Ward in 2006. Murray is 5-0 after losses in the Penguins’ playoff run, not bad for a 22-year-old who spent much of the season with Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) of the American Hockey League.
“I guess it shows you that you can never predict what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s been an absolute blast for me so far.”
The Final had been something of a struggle for Malkin, a holdover from the Penguins’ 2009 Cup team along with Sidney Crosby, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, left wing Chris Kunitz and defenseman Kris Letang. He had no points until he contributed a secondary assist Monday on Cole’s goal at 7:36 of the first period, and his power-play goal was his first goal since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Sharks on Monday tried to jolt their offense by shortening their bench and stacking their top line to put Logan Couture alongside Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. That produced some good spurts but not enough. “There’s no quit in our group,” Coach Peter DeBoer said. But there’s not enough production, either, and his team has been worn out by chasing the lead.
Still, Sharks defenseman Paul Martin said the team is staying positive. “We have not played our best,” he said. “I think everyone has another level we can get to.”
If it’s there, they’d better reach it Thursday. Even then, they might not be able to prevent Malkin and the Penguins from embracing the Cup, and that would be worth a fuss.