COLUMBUS, OHIO – Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins finally flexed their offensive muscles.
And they needed every bit of scoring they could muster.
Malkin had a hat trick and the Penguins almost blew a four-goal lead before holding off the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 on Monday night to clinch their first-round playoff series in six games.
“It’s more important that we win the game and (end) the series,” Malkin said of the 10th time he’s scored three times in a game in his career.
“Going into the second round now, you feel so much better when you have confidence. I hope in the next round I can score more.”
Pittsburgh awaits the winner of the New York-Philadelphia series, with the Rangers leading 3-2 going into Tuesday night’s Game 6.
It’s a good thing for the Penguins that Malkin — scoreless in his past nine playoff games including the first five in the series — finally found the net.
The Blue Jackets, closer to making tee times than thinking about a Game 7, scored three times in a 4:52 span in the third period to turn up the pressure on the Penguins, an overwhelming favorite before the series got under way.
“We’re a proud group in here,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said. “We didn’t want to get embarrassed on home ice. If it was going to be our last game of the season, we didn’t want to have any quit. We didn’t have any quit in this locker room all season. We just kept pushing and pushing.”
Brandon Sutter also scored before leaving with an injury and Matt Niskanen had two assists as the Penguins became the first team in the series to score first and win — but barely. Marc-Andre Fleury made 24 saves and made a couple of big stops after the game turned into a squeaker.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said the toe-to-toe matchup heralded a new level of contentious play between the teams.
“We’ve got a rivalry going here with the Jackets,” he said. “They gave us everything we could handle and it was a nice series for them. That was an extremely tough first-round opponent.”
Fedor Tyutin, Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno scored for Columbus, Foligno’s redirect of a Tyutin shot cut the gap to a goal with 4:47 left.
Up until the last few minutes, it was Malkin’s game. He hadn’t scored in the first 332:52 of the series, then scored three times in a span of 26:11.
“I could see it coming in the morning skate,” teammate James Neal said.
“His shot was going into the back of the net.”
Wild 5, Avalanche 2
In St. Paul, Minnesota, Zach Parise scored early and late on tipped shots as the Wild added two empty-net goals for a victory over Colorado that sent the first-round playoff series to a decisive Game 7.
Parise and Mikko Koivu each had two assists. The teams will meet again in Denver on Wednesday night, with the winner taking on the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals.
Parise scored just 49 seconds into the game and Mikael Granlund made it 2-0 later in the first period, but a costly turnover by Ryan Suter at the end of a failed 5-on-3 situation led to a short-handed goal for the Avalanche when Paul Stastny scored for the fourth time in the series.
Nick Holden got the tying goal in the second period for Colorado, but Parise stole the show for the home team.
Kings 4, Sharks 1
In Los Angeles, Justin Williams forced the tiebreaking goal underneath Alex Stalock with 8:04 to play, and the Kings beat San Jose, rallying all the way back from an 0-3 series deficit to force a decisive Game 7.
Williams and Anze Kopitar each had two goals and an assist, and Jonathan Quick made 25 saves as Los Angeles became just the ninth team in NHL history to force a seventh game after losing the first three.
Goaltender Stalock stopped 26 shots in his first NHL playoff start, and James Sheppard scored for the spiraling Sharks.
Just three teams in NHL history have rallied from an 0-3 deficit to win a series. Los Angeles could join them in Game 7 in San Jose on Wednesday night.