A mere 17 years and 1,001 games into his dazzling existence as a superstar center in the NHL, Evgeni Malkin has provided an incalculable amount of memories for Pittsburgh Penguins fans.
Perhaps the most accurate measure of what Malkin has offered is in the form of the franchise’s three most recent Stanley Cup banners that hang from the rafters of PPG Paints Arena. He was a vital component of those championships in 2009, 2016 and 2017.
On Wednesday, he gave the Penguins’ supporters — at least one of them — another gift.
To hockey sticks.
And a win.
Scoring the deciding shootout goal, Malkin elevated his team to a 2-1 home victory against the formidable Calgary Flames. The triumph extended a season-best winning streak to four games for the Penguins and created one more remarkable moment in Malkin’s extraordinary career.
“It was perfect,” said the Penguins’ other superstar center, Sidney Crosby. “You wouldn’t want anyone else to have the opportunity to win the game. The whole night was awesome, the whole day, the last few days, to be honest with you. Just an awesome finish. Happy to see him roof it and get the winner.”
Malkin punctuated the moment by tossing his stick into the crowd after scoring and provided one soul an early Christmas gift on Thanksgiving eve.
“We have great fans, for sure, every night,” Malkin said. “They buy tickets. They come to watch the next game. They know we work hard every night. … We play for them. Tonight, they cheer my name. It’s crazy.”
Before the contest, Malkin was honored by the Penguins for appearing in his 1,000th career game during a 5-3 road win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.
While Wednesday’s contest was largely a goal-tending duel between Tristan Jarry of the Penguins and Dan Vladar of the Flames, it was Malkin’s night from start to finish.
“The stage isn’t too big for him,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He plays his best when the stakes are high. He’s been on the big stage an awful lot in his career. He’s won three (Stanley Cup championships) and he has the ability to elevate his game when the stakes are high. That’s where players build their legacies. The best players in the game are guys that have the ability to elevate their game when the stakes are high. (Malkin), he’s not afraid of it. He gets excited about it. For me, that’s what separates him — and some of our other guys — from others. He’s a generational talent. He’s ultra-competitive.
“It couldn’t have been a more fitting ending for his 1,000th-game celebration tonight that he gets the shootout goal to win the game.”
Even Flames coach Darryl Sutter, hardly the most emotional personality in hockey, appreciated the moment despite suffering a loss.
“That’s the best part about our game,” Sutter said. “Honesty of the game. They have a night for him. He’s the guy that ends up winning it for them. Good for him. … It’s awesome. Don’t play them very often. Guys like that are special players.”
An unlikely source supplied the Penguins with a lead 2:09 into regulation when third-pairing defenseman Jan Rutta scored his third goal of the season. Claiming a loose puck out of a scrum between the benches, Penguins forward Jeff Carter lugged it up ice and gained the offensive zone near the center point. Facing resistance from Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin, Carter offloaded the puck with a drop pass to a trailing Rutta. With an acre of ice and a calendar of time to ruminate over his options, Rutta snapped off a dagger of a wrister that scorched Vladar’s blocker. Carter and linemate Danton Heinen had assists.
The Penguins appeared to take a two-goal lead with a would-be score by forward Bryan Rust at 9:34 of the first period, but the Flames issued a coach’s challenge on the basis of the sequence being offside and were successful.
A dominant shift in the offensive zone led to the Flames’ lone regulation goal 8:37 into the second period. After his team peppered the Penguins with several shot attempts, Flames defenseman Dennis Gilbert settled a failed clearing attempt at the left point and fed it to his partner at the right point, Chris Tanev. Surveying for a moment to identify a shooting lane, Tanev gripped and ripped a wrister toward the cage. Flames defenseman Dillon Dube set up shop in the slot and deflected the puck down off the ice, causing it to hop over Jarry’s left leg on the near side. Dube was credited with his third goal off assists from Tanev and Gilbert.
Vladar, a 6-foot-5, 209-pound mass of long limbs and stout equipment, snuffed out several quality opportunities for the Penguins throughout the contest, perhaps none more so than a larcenous denial of Penguins forward Rickard Rakell from less than 10 feet away in the slot only 44 seconds into the second period. Blessed with a wonderful opportunity, Rakell had a wrister denied by Vladar’s voluminous glove hand.
Later in the contest, Vladar rejected Carter on a breakaway 4:38 into the third period.
In total, Vladar made 38 saves on 39 shots — many of high quality — in regulation and overtime as his record fell to 1-3-1. In the shootout, he allowed goals to Rakell, Crosby and Malkin. Forward Jake Guentzel was the lone Penguins shooter to be denied.
Jarry was nearly as busy — at least in terms of quantity if not quality of shots — as he made 33 of a possible 34 saves in the first 65 minutes of action and improved his record to 7-3-2.
After Flames forward Nazem Kadri lost the puck on his shootout attempt, Jarry allowed goals to forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Rasmus Andersson before stopping forward Mikael Backlund.
It was the Penguins’ first shootout of the season and provided them a result they would not likely have secured earlier this month when they were embroiled in a seven-game losing streak.
Playing disciplined, tight, defensive games — such as Wednesday’s affair — was not a hallmark trait of the Penguins a few weeks ago.
“I definitely think we’re making progress in that area,” Sullivan said. “That’s always going to be an ongoing conversation with our group. And part of it is, I think, just the DNA of the group. We have guys that really want to make plays. Sometimes, there are no plays to be made. That’s when we have to make good decisions with the puck.
“We have a very capable group and when we take what the game gives us out there, we mitigate some of the risks. It makes us a whole lot more difficult to play against. That has to be a consistent aspect of the identity of this group. If we do that, I believe this team can compete with any team in the league.”
Of course, competing with any foe is easier when the adroit talents of a flamboyant showman such as Malkin are on your side.
“That’s ‘Geno,’” Jarry said. ”It’s unbelievable, especially to be on the right side of things. To be able to watch everything happen, even in practice, he does some unbelievable things.
“We’re so lucky to have him here in Pittsburgh.”
For Malkin, that good fortune is reciprocal with the team and those who root for it.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, I want to stay in one city (for) 17 years,” because I have good things and bad things,” Malkin said. “It’s not always perfect. I tell you the truth, I have (had) in my head, sometimes I change teams. I have (had) this thinking. But again, it’s crazy (to) stay (with the) same team, same city. I have injuries too. It’s not perfect. But I’m happy today. I feel so much better. (The) team plays unbelievable. No injuries. I’m glad I stay healthy and help (the) team win.
“Amazing night for me, my family. Thank you to my teammates, to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. They gave me a special night, special gifts before (the) game. No words. Just amazing.”
• The ceremony for Malkin prior to the game:
• Jarry recorded his 100th career win.
• The Penguins were 3 for 3 on the penalty kill and extended their season-best five-game streak of not allowing an opposing power-play goal. They are 13 for 13 on the penalty kill in that stretch.
• Penguins forward Kasperi Kapanen and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel were healthy scratches.
• Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov used his sturdy 6-foot-6 and 248-pound frame to block an ample eight shots.
“It helps having big feet,” Sutter quipped.
• Sutter, blessed with the experience of 1,416 games as a coach, offered a sound axiom following the contest:
“I’ve been coming here a long time. Tough to win in Pittsburgh. Tough to get points.”
• Furman South, of Sewickley, was one of the referees for Wednesday’s game.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .