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Malkin, Kessel break through in Penguins' Game 4 win vs. Sharks

SAN JOSE, Calif. – The way Evgeni Malkin was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins an offensive breakthrough was just a matter of time.

Malkin picked Game 4 as the one to finally get on the scoresheet, as the Penguins moved to within a game of winning the Stanley Cup after a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Monday night.

Despite the zeroes in his goals and assist columns through four games of the Final, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan emphasized that he liked what he was seeing from Malkin’s game. A breakthrough was coming and it began in the first period with a very smart play in the neutral zone.

As the Penguins were making a line change, Malkin took the puck with his back to the Sharks’ net and Roman Polak approaching. Sullivan said the coaching staff had told Malkin to try and simplify his game. In this moment, he could have backhanded the puck into the Sharks' zone and let the forecheckers chase it, but insead he noticed the situation and made a wise decision.

While fighting off Polak, Malkin hit a streaking Phil Kessel with a pass. Kessel cut through the Sharks’ zone and fired a shot on net, which Martin Jones blockered to his right, but Ian Cole was there to pounce on it to open the scoring.

“I see he use his speed. He’s flying and I try to give him just a little forward [pass],” said Malkin. “I had good position because I look back and I see Phil skate a little bit behind me. It’s just control puck and give [to] him.”

Early in the second, the Penguins took advantage of their second power play of the game. Sidney Crosby won the offensive zone faceoff and Malkin went straight to the Sharks’ net. With Kessel in possession of the puck along the wall on the other side of the ice, he threaded the needle and found Malkin on the backdoor.

“My goal, Phil give me an empty net,” Malkin said.

While the Penguins’ depth players have come through at clutch situations this postseason, having their superstars lead offensively when they needed has served as a very big boost. Kessel creating. Malkin creating and scoring. It’s the recipe for success and why Thursday night they could be celebrating a fourth title in franchise history.

When Malkin wasn’t scoring and critics were wondering when he’d show up in the series, Sullivan had faith all along.

“He’s such an instinctive player when he plays the game the right way and he doesn’t force things, he sees the plays that he needs to make,” Sullivan said. 

Kessel’s acquisition last summer was another weapon added to an already lethal offense. He bought in to what Sullivan preached when he replaced Mike Johnston in December. The coach has challenged his superstar winger in all areas of his game during conversations the two have had over the last several months.

Those talks have resulted in Kessel playing stellar hockey this postseason and has him as one of the favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy should the Penguins close out the series.

“We don’t get to where we’re at if Phil doesn’t play the type of hockey that he’s played here throughout the course of these playoffs,” said Sullivan. “He has been one terrific player for us. He scores big goals. His offense speaks for itself. He’s dangerous on the power play. He’s dangerous off the rush. But what I think that his teammates admire and respect and what his coaching staff certainly does is his commitment away from the puck and his play at both ends of the rink. He’s a complete player right now and when he plays that way he’s one of the more elite players in the league in our opinion.”

One year ago, Kessel was coming off a season to forget with the Toronto Maple Leafs. While his numbers remained strong, the team played poorly and things got ugly with the media.

Here we are a year later and he’s leading the Penguins in goals (10) and points (21) this postseason and could win something Thursday night that his Maple Leafs teams were so, so far away from.

“You never imagine something like this,” Kessel said. “To be one game away from winning is something pretty special. We’re just going to have to play a real good game.”

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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