Evgeni Malkin stepped up when Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby battled concussion problems for the better part of two seasons.
Now, it’s Crosby’s turn to return the favour.
Crosby had two goals and an assist to lead Pittsburgh past the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 on Sunday night in the Penguins’ first game since reigning MVP Malkin was injured.
“They’re a dangerous team, so we wanted to make sure we played in their end as much as we could,” Crosby said. “They don’t need much room in order to create chances.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin was diagnosed with a concussion after slamming back-first into the end boards during Friday night’s win over Florida.
Bylsma said Malkin, whose head snapped back when he hit the boards, initially suffered short-term memory loss, but he is improving. Still, Malkin will not join the team when it begins a three-game road swing Tuesday.
“He’s feeling fine and his memory is returning,” Bylsma said.
James Neal, Malkin’s regular linemate, played alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz against the Lightning. Neal is tied for second in the league in goals.
Beau Bennett scored his first career goal on the power play to help Pittsburgh take over sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division. Matt Cooke and defenceman Paul Martin each had a goal and an assist for the Penguins, who have won five of six to tie Montreal for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Steven Stamkos had a three-point night for Tampa Bay, with his 13th goal and two assists. Stamkos and John Tavares of the New York Islanders are tied for the NHL lead in goals.
Cory Conacher, the NHL’s leading scorer among rookies, and defenceman Eric Brewer also scored for the Lightning, who are tied with Carolina for first place in the Southeast Division.
Stamkos, with 29 points, is one ahead of Crosby for the NHL scoring lead.
“You can’t give a team like that a three-goal lead in the first,” Stamkos said. “We made a game of it, we did a lot of positive things, but we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Marc-Andre Fleury, tied for first in the league with 10 wins, won his fifth straight game.
Anders Lindback started in goal for the Lightning and allowed three first-period goals on 10 shots before he was replaced at the start of the second by Mathieu Garon.
Tampa Bay, which outshot Pittsburgh 30-22, nearly crawled out of the 3-0 first-period hole with two goals early in the second period. The Lightning scored another in the third after the Penguins’ second-period power-play goal, cutting the deficit to 4-3, but Tampa Bay, which scored four goals in the third period during a 5-2 win one night earlier at Carolina, couldn’t complete the comeback.
“We’re the No. 1 team in the league for comebacks after two periods the last three years and we proved again why,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “It’s just we can’t dig ourselves that big of a hole early, especially in a back-to-back.”
Crosby faced the Lightning for the first time since absorbing a check into the glass from Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman two years ago. It was a hit that contributed to the concussion problems that plagued the Penguins’ captain, forcing him to miss the final 41 games of the that regular season, the Stanley Cup playoffs, and most of last season as symptoms lingered.
Those days appear behind Crosby, who has 21 points in his last 12 games. The Penguins’ captain put his team ahead early with two goals less than 8 minutes into the game.
The first one came just 1:16 in. Crosby took a pass from Kunitz, skated alone down the left side and roofed a short-side wrist shot over Lindback’s shoulder from the faceoff dot.
Crosby’s second goal came 6 minutes later. Lindback had trouble trying to glove Martin’s shot from the point. Crosby got a stick on the puck, which bounced between Lindback’s legs and into the net after the Lightning goalie kicked it in.
Martin scored with 33 seconds left in the first period, tapping the rebound from Cooke’s initial shot into a partially empty net to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead.
The Lightning, after a dismal opening period, needed just 3:14 to score twice in the second.
Brewer got the first one 1:37 into the period on a tip-in from Stamkos, who followed it up by scoring the second — his fifth straight game with a goal — just 20 seconds into a two-man advantage.
Stamkos, with Pittsburgh’s Simon Despres and Craig Adams in the penalty box, wasted little time scoring on the power play, ripping a one-timer from the left side past Fleury to make it 3-2.
“They got right back into it and our three-goal lead evaporated,” Bylsma said. “I like how we stabilized the ship.”
The Penguins regained a two-goal lead, scoring on their own two-man advantage. It was the 11th straight game in which they scored a power-play goal, and the first time in five games Tampa Bay allowed a goal with the man advantage.
Kris Letang rushed to keep the puck in the zone at the blue line, sending a spinning pass to Crosby, who set up Bennett’s first NHL goal, a one-timer past Garon.
“Beau was in a good spot there,” Crosby said. “He’s a pretty gifted player, he has a lot of talent and he found the open lane.”
Conacher scored 3:15 into the third period, one-touching Hedman’s pass past Fleury to make it 4-3. But the Lightning, whose 32 third-period goals rank No. 1 in the NHL, couldn’t forge a tie despite Hedman’s near miss in the final minute.
“They’re a good team that has great offence and it’s going to bite you if you give them the puck, and that’s what happened tonight,” Boucher said.
Notes: Crosby moved into third all-time in team history with 637 points, behind Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. ... Cooke got his 200th career assist on Martin’s goal. ... Both teams play again Tuesday. Tampa Bay returns home to host Buffalo, while Pittsburgh opens a three-game road trip at Florida. In an odd scheduling quirk, the Penguins’ next home game is March 4 against Tampa Bay.