PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - Evgeni Malkin scored a hat-trick to help the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 7-4 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes and a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference final series on Thursday.
Malkin’s superb performance put the Penguins just two wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final for a second successive year after their defeat to Detroit in 2008.
The NHL’s regular season points leader, Malkin now has four goals in the first two games of the conference final.
“He’s having a lot of fun out there and he made some huge goals tonight,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said of his team mate after finishing with 24 saves.
“He’s a great player and we’ve seen him all year. I don’t think he needs (extra motivation).”
While Sidney Crosby carried Pittsburgh during its thrilling second-round victory against the Washington Capitals, it has been Malkin asserting himself thus far in this series.
Carolina led 3-2 after a Dennis Seidenberg goal at 12:10 in the first period, but Pittsburgh hit back with two goals in the second, and three more in the third put the result beyond doubt.
Maxime Talbot and Chris Kunitz scored in the second period to put the Penguins on top 4-3 and after Patrick Eaves had tied it for the Hurricanes, Pittsburgh ended the contest with three unanswered goals.
Malkin put in a wrister on an assist from Kunitz and Matt Cooke at 8:50 and added a backhand off a spin move at 12:25 before Tyler Kennedy capped the scoring at 18:11.
Crosby scored his first goal of the series and added an assist. Carolina goalie Cam Ward finished with 35 saves, but was ultimately powerless in the face of a furious Pittsburgh offense.
“We had 40 shots and some good opportunities. (Ward) is still playing well and making some saves it’s just the way it went tonight,” said Penguins winger Bill Guerin.
“I don’t think (we softened) them at all. They’re a hard team to play against, they keep coming, they work hard and believe in their system. We just have to play well every night.”
Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen added scores for the Hurricanes, who head home for Game Three on Saturday.
The Penguins are trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup after losing in the final the previous year since the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.
Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles, editing by Nick Mulvenney