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Malkin, Neal help Pens down Preds to clinch playoff berth

Mar 23, 2012 - 4:37 AM
Pittsburgh, PA (Sports Network) - "Fun to watch" is how backup goaltender Brad Thiessen put it recently.

It was an apt description of a suddenly red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins team that has cut a path into the NHL playoffs with a monthlong march up the standings.

Fun, that is, unless you root or play for another team.

The Penguins kept their foot firmly on the pedal Thursday with a 5-1 win over the Nashville Predators, getting two goals from Evgeni Malkin and clinching a berth in the postseason for the sixth straight year.

Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz also scored for the Penguins, who improved to 13-0-1 in their last 14 games and moved within a point of the idle New York Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference.

James Neal had four assists one game after picking up his second career hat trick in an 8-4 rout of Winnipeg on Tuesday that had Thiessen raving about the players he faces every day in practice.

That win came after a last-second loss to the Flyers in overtime Sunday that seems like only a hiccup for a team that hasn't fallen in regulation in more than a month.

Marc-Andre Fleury had 29 saves against the Predators, becoming the first NHL goaltender to 40 wins this season, and Pittsburgh ran its home winning streak to nine games.

Nashville hit one high note in the game, and it came from an unlikely source.

Alexander Radulov, back with the Predators after winning two MVPs in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, scored their only goal in his first NHL game since 2008.

Pekka Rinne gave up five goals on 23 shots and is stuck on 39 wins, trailing only Fleury, and the Predators fell to 1-3-1 in their last five games.

The Penguins, meanwhile, remained No. 4 in the conference but are now on New York's doorstep with 98 points.

Malkin, who had two goals and five points vs. the Jets on Tuesday, scored Nos. 44 and 45 against the Predators and upped his NHL-leading point total to 95.

He scored 83 seconds into the first period -- on a slap shot from the left circle that went off Rinne's glove before hitting inside the far post -- to make it clear the Penguins wouldn't have a let down after Tuesday's win.

"A great start," said Neal, "and we never really looked back."

Just 2:43 later, Dupuis got his stick on Kris Letang's shot from the high right side and re-directed it through Rinne's legs to make it 2-0.

Cooke gave the Penguins a 3-0 lead 1:58 into the second period, stuffing the puck in after Neal drew Rinne to his right by skating in front of the crease, then dropped a pass across to his teammate.

After Kunitz made it 4-0, Radulov worked hard to give himself a chance.

Cycling the puck to the high left side, Radulov doubled back to the slot and was gifted the carom off Hal Gill's long shot, which he fired home to draw the Predators within 4-1 at the 12:01 mark of the second.

Radulov's re-debut came nearly four years after he caused a stir by ignoring the final year of his entry-level contract to sign with Salavat Yulayev in his native Russia, leaving the Predators after two seasons during which he had 44 goals and 95 points.

"For all he's gone through in the last 10 or 12 days, I thought he was fine," Predators coach Barry Trotz said of Radulov's game.

Malkin finished the scoring 2:03 into the third period with a slap shot from the left circle that beat Rinne over his shoulder into the far upper corner of the net.

Game Notes

Radulov scored his first NHL goal since April 14, 2008, in a playoff game against Detroit. It was his first regular-season goal since he scored two, also against Detroit, on March 20 that year...Nashville suspended the forward without pay for the 2008-09 season, but he was ultimately allowed to play in the KHL...Pittsburgh's last regulation loss was 6-2 at Buffalo February 19...The Penguins are at Ottawa on Saturday...Nashville is back home versus Winnipeg on Saturday.