March 22, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Matt Cooke (24) scores a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35) as defender Kevin Kline (8) defends too late during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
The eyes of the hockey world were on the Consol Energy Center for the return of Alexander Radulov to the NHL, but it would be countryman Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins who truly put on a show.
In addition, Evgeni Malkin, red-hot since returning from injury, looked to continue his campaign towards a likely Hart Trophy and the third 100-point season of his NHL career.
The game also marked the final matchup for the Penguins against the Western Conference in the regular season, and an opportunity for Pittsburgh to formally clinch a playoff spot.
With all those factors combined, it's little wonder that the eyes of the hockey world were focused firmly on Pennsylvania.
Despite Pekka Rinne and the Nashville defense looking sharp off the opening faceoff, it was Malkin who struck first, overshadowing his countryman's debut, tearing down the boards after a loose puck before firing a powerful shot that struck the top of Rinne's glove before bouncing upwards and landing in the back of the net just 90 seconds into the game.
The game would not improve from Nashville's perspective when Pascal Dupuis redirected a Kris Letang point shot past Rinne a few minutes later, leading many to wonder if Predators head coach Barry Trotz would elect to call it a night for the Finnish goaltender after two goals on four shots, but he made the decision to stick with his starter through the night.
The Predators recovered some equilibrium and pushed the Penguins back, but a late penalty to Shea Weber forced them to give up momentum in the final minute of the first period, though they regained a measure when Malkin was called for a tripping penalty early in the power play.
Any thoughts of rebounding in the second period, however, would end when James Neal stole the puck from Francis Bouillon and charged in on the Nashville goal before tossing off at the last moment to Matt Cooke at the side of the crease for a tap-in.
Neal played triggerman again several minutes later, carrying the puck across the Nashville blue line before kicking it to Chris Kunitz, who walked in through a surprisingly porous defense before scoring.
With the Predators looking uncharacteristically disjointed and unfocused, it was finally time for Radulov to make an impact, setting up a cycle with Hal Gill before waiting in the slot for a rebound off the defenseman's powerful shot. Slamming it through Fleury's legs, he scored his first goal in the NHL since the 2007-08 season, the lone bright spot on the evening for the Nashville organization.
Perhaps the Predators were feeling the effects of the media pressure, or perhaps the many distractions around Radulov's return simply overwhelmed them. Perhaps the Penguins' drive to reach the pinnacle of the Eastern Conference has become juggernaut at the best possible time, carrying them past opponents regardless of quality.
With their guests thoroughly cowed, Neal and Malkin connected for one final goal in the opening minutes of the third period, with the young winger setting up the Russian all-star for another glove side slap shot that looked eerily similar to the first goal of the evening. Striking the far post before going into and out of the net, the goal required a brief video review before being confirmed, putting Malkin just two goals behind his career regular season high of 47, while Neal recorded his fourth assist of the game, a career best.
Now just a point behind the New York Rangers for first in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, the Penguins stay hot as they take on the Ottawa Senators Saturday evening. The Predators return home to Bridgestone Arena and will attempt to right their ship before the suddenly-surging Blackhawks or Avalanche can take advantage of this uncharacteristic stretch of play.