PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first 25 minutes against the Toronto Maple Leafs showcasing all of their flaws, from defensive breakdowns to spotty goaltending to questionable decision-making.
Then they spent the next 40 providing a reminder why they remain one of the most potent teams in the NHL.
Evgeni Malkin picked up his first two-goal game in more than 18 months and added the game-winner in the shootout and Pittsburgh rallied by the stunned Maple Leafs 6-5 on Wednesday night.
“That game was all over the place,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
So was Bylsma’s team, which fell behind 4-1 and 5-3 — looking comical at times in the process — before getting its act together in the third period.
Malkin and James Neal both scored in the third to tie it up, with Malkin and Sidney Crosby beating Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier in the shootout as Pittsburgh narrowly avoided its third three-game losing streak of the season.
“Give everyone credit for sticking with it, because that first 25 minutes is as ugly as it gets,” Crosby said.
Chris Conner and Kris Letang also scored for Pittsburgh while Crosby added two assists to lift his point total to a league-leading 33. Rookie Jeff Zatkoff stopped 11 of 13 shots after replacing ineffective starter Marc-Andre Fleury less than a minute into the second period.
“Jeff came in and made the stops he needed to make and played heads up,” Bylsma said.
Having the third period off helped too. Toronto didn’t record a single shot over the final 25 minutes of play and went 0 for 2 in the shootout.
James van Riemsdyk scored twice and added an assist for the Maple Leafs. Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri also scored for Toronto, but the Maple Leafs lost their way after taking a big lead.
“I thought we did some good things for parts of the game, but obviously against a team like that you give them an inch and they’re going to take it all,” van Riemsdyk said.
While the Maple Leafs fizzled, there were no problems for the Penguins, who peppered Bernier with a season-high 48 shots. The goaltender made 43 stops, but went just 1 for 3 in the shootout.
The Penguins have won 12 straight games against goaltenders making their first career starts against Pittsburgh.
It’s a streak that appeared in jeopardy when Bozak put the Maple Leafs ahead 5-3 with 5 seconds left in the second period by tapping a lazy rebound by Zatkoff.
Instead, it proved to be the last sign of offence from Toronto. Pittsburgh’s decimated defence, which lost star Paul Martin for 4 to 6 weeks earlier in the day with a fractured leg, clamped down and let Malkin, Crosby company go to work.
“We received the whole third period,” Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. “We didn’t skate, we didn’t forecheck, we didn’t establish much.”
Neal’s sixth goal in his past five games pulled Pittsburgh within 5-4 at 3:46 of the third and Malkin tied it less than four minutes later when he stood in front of the crease and nudged a scrambling Bernier into the net then tucked the puck under the sprawled goaltender.
“Slow start but we need to play whole 60 minutes,” Malkin said. “Not a great game for us but two points, it’s fine.”
Toronto managed to extend the game through overtime, but was no match against Zatkoff in the shootout. Zatkoff stuffed Bozak and David Clarkson in the first two rounds, and after Crosby easily beat Bernier to give the Penguins the advantage, Malkin wrapped up the comeback by firing a wrist shot over the exhausted goaltender’s right arm.
Pittsburgh dominated for stretches early, but the Maple Leafs kept effectively counter punching.
Van Riemsdyk and Kadri helped the Maple Leafs take an early 2-1 lead and things only got worse for Fleury early in the second. He failed to clear the puck behind the net, instead feeding it directly to van Riemsdyk, who pushed it across the goal to make it 3-1 just 13 seconds into the period. That was all for Fleury, stopped just eight of the 11 shots he faced.
Zatkoff didn’t exactly settle in quietly. Another Pittsburgh turnover allowed Bozak to set up a wide-open Kessel for a one-time that pushed Toronto’s lead to 4-1 just 29 seconds after Fleury skated to the bench.
Pittsburgh drew within a goal as Malkin and Letang scored on consecutive power plays, but the hard work seemed to evaporate in the final moments of the second as Zatkoff failed to control a rebound on a van Riemsdyk slap shot and the puck just sat in the crease for Bozak to tap in with just 5 seconds remaining in one of the weirder 20 minutes of the season for both teams.
It set the stage for what Bylsma called the best 25 minutes he’s seen from his team in quite some time.
NOTES: The Penguins went 3 for 5 on the power play. … Malkin’s last multiple-goal game came on March 22, 2012, against Nashville. … Toronto played without F Joffrey Lupul, who strained his groin in the second period of Monday’s loss to the Blue Jackets. … A crowd of 18,660 showed up the night before Thanksgiving to provide the Penguins with their 300th straight sellout.