PITTSBURGH, PA. - It was midway through the second period, and the wonderful Evgeni Malkin had just scored his 42nd goal of the season and 200th of his career, a milestone achieved against the Winnipeg Jets.
Chants of “M-V-P” and a standing ovation rained down from the adoring Pittsburgh crowd, as Malkin’s parents, sitting in the stands, were captured on the giant video screen, the man’s father fighting back tears.
Had a camera zoomed in on Jets head coach Claude Noel, it may have captured a similar scene.
Only his would have been tears of frustration, not joy, as his team was once again abandoning the defence-first mantra he’d preached going into this hornet’s nest of a place.
Malkin’s goal made it 5-3, Pens, and the home side was rolling to an 8-4 win that made the chasm between arguably the top team in the NHL East and the one in 10th look canyonesque.
In case you’re scoring at home, that’s 16 goals for Pittsburgh in its last two games against the Little Team from the Prairie.
“Until we either mature or get better, get the ability to shut those guys down ... even the best players in the league have trouble handling those guys,” an exasperated Noel said. “You’ve got to handle them as a group, and that’s no easy task. ’Cause they pick you apart.”
Allowed to roam at will in the Winnipeg zone, the Pens scored goals like they were picking cherries on a perfect day in the orchard.
Politely setting up the ladders and offering crumpets and glasses of iced tea, was a Jets team that simply doesn’t know how to get down and dirty away from home.
“It’s really similar to last game,” centre Bryan Little, who scored twice, said, referring to Winnipeg’s last trip, here, an 8-5 disaster. “We let it slip away. What more can you say? It was exact same as last time.”
Pens coach Dan Bylsma was equally perplexed, albeit it with a smile on his face.
“I’m not quite sure what it is about the water when these two teams play,” Bylsma offered.
Actually, it’s the people drinking it.
If there was any doubt how far back the Jets’ collection of skill is compared to Pittsburgh’s, it was put under a magnifying glass in all its gory detail, Tuesday night.
Just look down the centre of the ice: Little, Alex Burmistrov and Jim Slater, against Malkin, Jordan Staal and Sidney Crosby.
“Who are you gonna throw out there that’s going to shut those guys down?” Noel wondered aloud. “When you’ve got those kinds of bullets as a coach, you’ve got options.”
Malkin and the Kid, playing his first home game since coming back from his latest concussion setback, combined for nine points and caused big trouble for guys like Little.
“Every time you’re out there, you’re playing against one of the better players in the league,” the Jet said.
James Neal had the hat trick for Pittsburgh, helping to chase goalie Ondrej Pavelec, midway through.
Game but ultimately overwhelmed, the Jets hung in there for the better part of two periods. At least, technically.
But then 5-4 became 8-4, and Winnipeg’s road record took yet another hit, along with its playoff chances.
Turning in a solid defensive performance and losing would have been one thing.
Allowing all the warnings from Noel to go in one ear and out the other, another entirely.
“It’s one thing to talk about it in the dressing room, but we have to go do it — and we didn’t,” Little said. “We weren’t tough enough on their top guys. It’s demoralizing. But we can’t put our heads down and be mopey about it, because we’ve got the biggest game possibly of the year coming up against Washington.”
Ah, yes, another Capitals game looms larger than life itself.
This one Friday, in the back yard of the White House.
A monumental game, for a team that appears to be on its last legs.
“We don’t have time to be demoralized,” Noel said. “We’re going to end up having to find a way to get our self-esteem up and reenergized... it turns out that’s a huge game for us, that really is going to define where we are.”
And where they’re ultimately going.