New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Evgeni Malkin scored twice, James Neal had four assists and the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched a playoff spot with a 5-1 victory over the Nashville Predators last night.
Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis also scored to help Pittsburgh pull within a point of the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with nine games remaining. Marc-Andre Fluery made 29 saves for his NHL-leading 40th victory.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby was held without a goal for the 12th straight game and failed to score a point, but it hardly stopped the Penguins from winning their ninth straight home game to keep the heat on the Rangers.
Nashville’s Alexander Radulov scored in his return to the NHL after four years in Russia, but the Penguins picked apart Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. The league saves leader allowed two goals in the first 5 minutes.
Nashville hopes Radulov will take some of the pressure off the always busy Rinne as the franchise gears up for the postseason. The talented 25-year-old left the Predators after the 2007-08 season to go home to Russia, where he won two MVPs and one title while playing for the KHL’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa.
Radulov re-wrote the KHL record book — he’s the league’s career goals leader — before Nashville general manager David Poile lured him back to the team that took him in the first round of the 2004 draft. He made an immediate impact, scoring his first NHL regular-season goal since March 20, 2008, when he beat Fleury on a rebound midway through the second.
One problem, all it did was cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-1. While Radulov might have become the best player in Russia, Malkin has developed into arguably the best player on the planet.
Malkin needed less than 90 seconds to score in his fifth straight game, beating Rinne with a knuckling slap shot from the right circle to give Pittsburgh a quick lead. Rinne appeared to be in position to make the save only to watch the puck deflect off his glove and into the net.
Less than 3 minutes later the lead was 2-0 as the red-hot Dupuis deflected a Kris Letang shot from the point between Rinne’s legs. Dupuis’ 22nd goal of the season extended his points streak to a career-best eight games.
And just like that the NHL’s highest-scoring team was off the races.
Cooke made it 3-0 early in the second period following a nice drop pass from Neal, whose four assists were a career-high. Kunitz added his 22nd later in the period when his crossing pass attempt directed at Crosby deflected off Nashville defenseman Shea Weber’s skate and into the net.
Radulov’s goal proved but a footnote. Malkin’s second goal of the night and 45th of the season early in the third period pushed his league-leading point total to 95 as he closes in on the Art Ross Trophy awarded to the NHL’s leading scorer.
The Penguins improved to 13-2-3 against the Western Conference this season, the best mark by an Eastern Conference team.
It’s a good sign heading into the postseason, a place the franchise is heading for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.