SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Teammates expected a big game from Evgeni Malkin on Monday night.
One day after Malkin voiced little concern but said he needed to be better after going without a point the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, the star center helped put the Pittsburgh Penguins within grasp of their second Stanley Cup in seven years.
Malkin, the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, scored his 10th career playoff game-winning goal and assisted on another goal Monday night as the Penguins beat the San Jose Sharks 3-1 at SAP Center to take a 3-1 series lead.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, certainly one of the most talented,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “When he takes it upon himself, when he says, ‘Hey, I need to better, I have a lot more to contribute, and I’m going to do it,’ he does it.”
The Penguins, who won their first three Stanley Cups in road buildings, return to Pittsburgh for what could be a festive Game 5 Thursday. Teams up 3-1 in a Stanley Cup Final are 31-1 all-time; the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the exception.
“You’ve just got to understand that it’s going to take our best and we’re going to see their absolute best,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “You can’t get caught looking ahead. We’ve had a great approach all playoff long — all season long — in making sure we’re staying in the moment.
“That will be important here, now more than ever.”
Phil Kessel, a week after USA Hockey somehow couldn’t find room for him on this fall’s World Cup team, has catapulted himself into Conn Smythe Trophy front-runner talk.
The former Gophers star and besieged ex-Maple Leaf assisted on two goals and leads the Penguins in playoff scoring with 21 points.
“You never imagine something like this,” Kessel said. “But to be one game away from winning is something special.”
Kessel, who has 42 points in 44 career playoff games, assisted on Cole’s first career playoff goal in the first period, then put a pass aimed at the far post on a tee for Malkin’s power-play goal in the second.
“He’s playing such a complete game right now,” veteran Matt Cullen said of Kessel. “He’s just such a dynamic player.”
Melker Karlsson cut the deficit to 2-1 at 8:07 into the third period, but the Sharks, full of snake-bit stars, could never beat rookie Matt Murray again. Pens checker Eric Fehr iced things late.
Murray bounced back after giving up a couple of shaky goals in Game 3. He made 23 saves to win his 14th playoff game after nine wins in the regular season.
If Murray backstops the Penguins to the Eastern Conference’s first Stanley Cup in five years, he’ll tie the rookie record for wins in a postseason (15) with Cam Ward, Ron Hextall and Patrick Roy.
“He’s been calm and cool in there,” Kessel said.
The talk between Games 3 and 4 from the Sharks’ locker room was how they had to figure out a way to play with a lead.
But Cole’s goal had the Sharks chasing yet again. They have now failed to play with a lead in all 254 minutes, 53 seconds of this series.
League-leading playoff goal scorer Joe Pavelski, without a point in the series, looks to be pressing. Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Joe Thornton are all searching for their first goal.
“I’m more frustrated with the wins and losses than anything,” Pavelski said. “If it’s different, if it’s 3-1 [Sharks], and you don’t have anything, it’s a different story. But right now with the hole we’re at, a goal or two probably changes the outcome.”
If the Sharks’ stars don’t find a way, it’ll be a long summer for the Western Conference champs.
But, the Penguins aren’t celebrating yet.
“We’ve earned an opportunity, and that’s it,” said Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup with Carolina 10 years ago. “We haven’t done anything yet.”