Malkin, Rupp epitomize Penguins' run
PITTSBURGH -- We offer a little numerology riff in the wake of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.
Take 71 and 17, for instance. A little yin and yang, a little salt and pepper.
In a victory that gives the Penguins a 3-2 series lead, the men wearing those sweaters and their play on this night give more than a little insight into why Pittsburgh has an opportunity to close out its sixth straight playoff series away from home Monday night in Montreal and advance to its third straight conference final.
No. 71, of course, is 2008-09 regular-season scoring champ and playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin, a player who on Saturday night stepped well beyond the fray. We always talk about players raising the level of their game, but this was one of those rare moments where the notion is made tangible.
Malkin was a force, controlling the puck for long stretches of time in the Montreal zone, bulling his way through traffic. He led all Penguins with six shots, set up a power-play goal in the first period by Kris Letang, and later controlled the puck in the offensive zone before Sergei Gonchar scored what would be the winner midway through the second period.
"It's great to watch. It's great to have him on your team," said veteran forward Bill Guerin, who returned to the lineup after an undisclosed injury kept him out of Games 3 and 4. "When he takes it to that level, it's really, really hard for other guys to stop him. Even two guys, he's going to make it difficult on you. If he's not taking it to the net himself, he's going to find somebody. If he gets in that zone of playing, it's really difficult for the other team."
Malkin's performance was especially impressive given that there has been significant pressure on he and captain Sidney Crosby to deliver against the surprising Habs.
Crosby was held without a goal for the sixth straight game and without a point for the third time in this series. Malkin has just one goal in the series, but Saturday, in a game that featured plenty chance on both sides of the puck and terrific goaltending from both Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury, he tipped the scales in the Pens' favor.
"There were three or four or five instances on the rush in the offensive zone where he had the puck on a string and was going to a different level," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He glues everybody, including the coaches, to the edge of their seats to see what's going to happen. Love seeing him there."
Malkin agreed this was his best game of the series.
"I try and play strong every game. Maybe tonight, I [felt] a little bit better," he said.
Invert Malkin's No. 71 and you have Mike Rupp, who missed Game 4 with what he described as "a bug."
In some ways, he is the polar opposite of Malkin in skill, but not necessarily in importance, at least not Saturday night. Rupp returned to the lineup and created havoc from the first shift, banging bodies in the offensive zone and helping create a number of offensive chances. He sent rookie Mark Letestu in alone on Halak with a deft pass in the offensive zone in the third period. And it was Rupp who parked his big body in front of Halak on the Gonchar goal. Like Malkin, even though Rupp did not get credit for an assist on the goal, it was as much Rupp's tally as Gonchar's.
In a series that has gone back and forth with each team taking then giving, these are the performances that help define the fine line between winning and losing.
"We're sitting here this morning looking at a three-game series against a team that's given us problems," Rupp said. "They're playing us really well; they deserve their wins and we deserve our wins, and there's really no room for anything else but to come with your best. I was just looking to bring my game and I thought our team as a whole did do that."
So, the teams return to Montreal for a Game 6 on Monday that represents familiar territory for both. The Canadiens were down 3-1 in their opening-round series against the Capitals and won Game 6 to force a seventh and deciding game in Washington.
"Everybody still believes," said Halak, who was again strong, turning aside 23 of 25 shots. "It's 3-2, but we're still in this series. We've been in this situation before."
Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri, who led all shooters with nine shots and brought the Habs within a goal with 30.8 seconds left in regulation Saturday, didn't exactly guarantee a Game 7 in Pittsburgh, but sure didn't sound like a player who was thinking about golf just yet.
"We're not going to go away. You know that," Cammalleri said. "Now we just have to win one game at home and we're right back where we want to be."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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