Malkin scores twice as Pens rally past Leafs

The Penguins' Chris Conner beats Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the first period Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins' Chris Conner beats Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the first period Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, 10:48 p.m.

Jeff Zatkoff is aware of the situation.

He is also aware of the opportunity that situation provides.

“You've got some really good players who make a decent amount of money,” Zatkoff said of the Penguins' depth, challenged this season by a lower salary cap and injuries.

“You need to count on guys with a lower cap figure to step in on the bottom lines and on defense.”

Also, in goal – as Zatkoff did Wednesday night, stopping 11 shots in relief of starter Marc-Andre Fleury to help the Penguins score a wild shootout win, 6-5, over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Consol Energy Center.

A franchise-best 300th consecutive sellout crowd witnessed how a handful of skilled stars can overcome almost anything.

Deficits of 4-1 and 5-3 were erased by three-point performances from center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang and two-point outputs from captain Sidney Crosby and wingers Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

Malkin, with his fifth and sixth goals, Letang (fifth) and Neal (seventh) pulled the Penguins even with about 12 minutes left in regulation.

Crosby and Malkin scored in the shootout, where Zatkoff was perfect on two shots.

Malkin has totaled 20 points in his last 13 games. He is at 30 points, second only to Crosby's league-leading 33.

Malkin was bothered, more than a bit, by his club's performance against Toronto.

“We didn't play a whole game, 60 minutes,” Malkin said, “but two points is fine.”

The Penguins (16-9-1, 33 points) entered the final period trailing by two goals but ahead in shots, 29-24.

They entered the shootout with 48 shots.

The Maple Leafs remained stuck on 24.

“I don't think we could have been any worse in the first 25 minutes,” Crosby said, referring to costly turnovers that set up the Maple Leafs' third and fourth goals, and a poor line change that contributed to Toronto's second.

“We were probably just so upset by how easily we had given them everything.”

A makeshift third line ­– AHL wingers Chris Conner and Andrew Ebbett centered by NHL regular Brandon Sutter – provided an identity, something the Penguins' had lacked from that unit, coach Dan Bylsma said.

Conner scored the Penguins' opening goal.

“It was a lot more than that,” Bylsma said. “It was the speed that line played with every time over the boards, and they kept playing with it.”

The Penguins, who played without top-four defensemen Paul Martin (broken tibia) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle), finished against Toronto with four skaters that began this season in the AHL. Zatkoff would have if not for an injury (blood clot) that has sidelined backup goalie Tomas Vokoun.

Depth always was going to challenge the Penguins this year. The salary cap, instituted in 2005, decreased for the first time, dropped by $6 million from last season.

The Penguins are paying their top six forwards about $32 million (49.7 percent) against the $64.3 million cap.

The Penguins are a max-cap squad, as has been ownership's mandate since adding salary with the in-season acquisition of Marian Hossa in February 2008.

In previous seasons, a higher cap has allowed Shero to acquire the likes of Hossa, Bill Guerin and Jarome Iginla. It has afforded the luxury of a former No. 2 overall pick, Jordan Staal, as a third-line center.

Getting under the cap for this season meant parting ways with left winger Matt Cooke, who was a third-line staple.

Without the NHL-proven depth, the Penguins must rely on their stars at a time during the regular season when role players often provide a boost.

“That's our job every night,” right winger Pascal Dupuis said. “I don't know if you feel more pressure because of the cap. The media can count the dollars. We come here every night and think about playing hockey.

“I haven't looked at the cap. I don't even know where we are. That's somebody else's job.”

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