Penguins climb back into playoff spot — for now

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The Pittsburgh Penguins could have sulked, but then Evgeni Malkin turned into “The Incredible Hulk.”

During the first game of NBC and NBCSN’s “Hockey Day in America” extravaganza, the Penguins saw a 3-1 lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie heading into the third period. Pittsburgh had also lost a 5-4 game in regulation to the Flames the day before on Saturday. Sometimes, that combination of fatigue and disappointment can deflate a team to the point of defeat. That’s especially worrisome since the Penguins entered Sunday on the outside looking in at the East playoff picture.

Then the Penguins’ big guns intervened in what was a hectic, messy, and ultimately important win.

To start an explosive third period surge, Kris Letang scored an emphatic goal — his second of the game, and somehow already his 15th of this season.

For a while, it seemed like the Penguins’ defense would be the story of the game. Pittsburgh’s first four goals came via blueliners: two from Letang, one from Marcus Pettersson, and one from Brian Dumoulin.

Evgeni Malkin found another gear, though, in a way few others can. Malkin scored two goals about 90 seconds apart. His 6-3 tally at the time seemed like it wouldn’t be the game-winner, but in a lot of ways, it’s fitting that this beautiful backhander was the decisive goal:

Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad scored late goals to generate some drama in the closing moments of Sunday’s game, and that was fitting too, as the Rangers were not an easy out in this contest.

The Penguins were able to dig in and win 6-5, even if it wasn’t pretty. This leaves Pittsburgh as the second wild-card in the East with 69 points and 30 regulation/overtime wins in 59 games, giving them a slight edge in front of ninth-place Carolina (68 points, 30 ROW, 59 GP).

If Pittsburgh wants to make it into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and make a run once they get there, then they’ll need to dig deep like they did today. (They might need to tighten things up a little, though. Just saying.)

NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Remaining NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
St. Louis at Minnesota – NBC – 3:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.