It isn't often that a Pittsburgh Penguin is deemed worthy of a comparison to the greatest Penguin, perhaps the greatest player, to ever lace up a pair of skates.
Tonight, Evgeni Malkin was worthy of such a comparison.
Never before, at least not this season, has one player put an entire team, an entire city, on his back, and drug them from the dismal depths of defeat to such a glorious victory.
It's no secret that the Penguins have been nothing more than mediocre for the past two months. They have suffered some stinging defeats. They've blown leads, they've pissed away countless power plays, they've even lost to the Nashville Predators.
They failed to post a winning record in the months of December and January and watched themselves slip out of the playoff picture with just 30 games remaining on the schedule.
On Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning came to town.
The Bolts shut out the Penguins 2-0 during their last trip to the Igloo, leaving both fans and players with a sour taste in their mouths during the Christmas break.
Tonight's game started off much in the same way.
Pittsburgh's own Ryan Malone scored the first goal of the game for the Bolts at 15:25 of the first period.
The Lightning kept coming hard, out hitting, out shooting, out working, and out playing the Penguins in every facet of the game.
Vinny Lecavalier and Martin Say Cheese eventually helped Tampa build a three goal advantage entering the final 20 minutes of play.
In a season dampened by injuries, a lack of personnel, and inconsistency, one man has been the stead fast leader of the Pittsburgh Penguins. That man does not wear a 'C' on his jersey, but that man doesn't need to either.
That man is Evgeni Malkin.
Cast your MVP ballots now. Write off Ovechkin, Crosby, Vanek, and the likes of the rest of the talent around the National Hockey League.
Evgeni Malkin's third period performance tonight should erase any and all doubts about who is the best player in the world right now.
Malkin was on a mission all game long, a mission to salvage not only this game, but the Penguins season.
A mission to re-motivate the troops into believing that they are indeed capable of achieving something far more than mediocrity.
A mission to prove once and for all who is not only the Penguins' best player, but the true face of the future of the National Hockey League.
His mission was successful during the final 20 minutes of tonight's game.
Malkin flew into the offensive zone off of the bench, intercepted an outlet pass and fed Pascal Dupuis on the left wing early in the third period.
Dupuis released the only shot in his repertoire, a slap shot. The puck squirted through the pads of goaltender Mike McKenna and died in the blue paint just shy of the goal line.
In an inspired effort to erase the rookie goaltender's hopes of a shutout in his first start in the NHL, Malkin continued to follow the play, swooped around the net, and tapped the loose puck home. 3-1 Tampa.
Malkin was flying around the ice, taking the body in a way that had to make the grizzled veteran Gary Roberts proud of his former teammate.
Gino forced another turnover in the offensive zone, and the Penguins capitalized once again.
Petr Sykora snuck a puck through the crease and Mark Eaton tracked down the loose biscuit on the backside of the play. Eaton whirled the puck toward the net, got a fortuitous bounce off of Steve Eminger's boot, and the Pens were within one.
Two and a half minutes later, Matt Cooke got tangled up with Gary Roberts in the corner. The two continued their confrontation up the ice before Cooke coaxed Roberts into punching him in the face at center ice.
Roberts was penalized two minutes for roughing, and abruptly grabbed Cooke by the neck and spit some pleasantries into his ear.
Roberts wanted to fight, Cooke wanted to draw a penalty. Mission accomplished.
Roberts had this to say about the confrontation: "I mean, we're jostling all the way up the ice and obviously he's famous for diving and never really playing with any honor, unfortunately the rules protect guys like that. But, yeah ... I've got to be smarter than that. There's no excuse, up 3-2, it's a bad penalty for me."
Gary Roberts is still the scariest man in the NHL, even at the tender age of 42.
On the ensuing power play, Gino threw a one-handed shot toward the net and was denied by McKenna. A scramble ensued in front of the net and Petr Gunn was able to tap the loose puck between the pads of McKenna, tying the game at three.
Neither team could end it in regulation, so we headed for overtime. The Malkin Show wasn't over yet.
Gino rattled off five of the Penguins' seven shots in the overtime period, with the fifth being the charm.
With less than 20 seconds remaining in the game, Jordan Staal worked the puck low, behind the goal line. Staal was able to find Malkin in the slot, with a defender approaching.
Malkin released a wrist shot, which found its way through the pillows of McKenna before being hauled down to the right of the net.
Gino celebrated his goal, and his epic performance by launching himself into the boards before being bombarded with face-washes galore from his teammates.
"Now that's clutch"
Final Score: Pittsburgh 4 Tampa Bay 3 (OT)
Tonight we witnessed the birth of something that can only be described as magnificent.
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