Penguins-Senators Preview

The Associated Press

Evgeni Malkin is a major reason the Pittsburgh Penguins are closing in on the Eastern Conference lead with the Presidents' Trophy also in sight.

The Russian superstar is making a case for a trophy of his own.

Malkin looks to continue his torrid scoring pace Saturday night as the Penguins hope to move atop the conference when they visit the sputtering Ottawa Senators.

Despite playing just 66 games, Malkin leads the NHL with 95 points for his highest total since getting a career-high 113 in 2008-09. Pittsburgh (46-21-6) went on to win the Stanley Cup that season behind his Conn Smythe Trophy performance.

Malkin's recent play has helped turn the Penguins into a favorite to claim another Cup. The All-Star center has 13 goals and 11 assists during their dizzying 13-0-1 run, including seven goals and as many assists during a six-game scoring streak.

He found the net twice for the second consecutive game in Thursday's 5-1 victory over Nashville.

Pittsburgh is one point behind the New York Rangers for the East lead, and three back of league-leading St. Louis. The Rangers face Toronto while the Blues are idle Saturday, and the Penguins have at least one game in hand on each club.

"If we keep playing this way, good things are going to happen," left wing James Neal said.

Good things may also be in store for Malkin, perhaps the favorite for the Hart Trophy.

"I think now that he's this close I'm sure it's something that he's aware of," said teammate Sidney Crosby, the NHL MVP in 2006-07. "I don't think he has to force anything. The way he's playing he's going to get chances to get goals."

Malkin's case for the honor has been reinforced by his ability to spark the Penguins in Crosby's absence for much of the season.

A meeting with Ottawa (37-28-10) may just keep him rolling. Malkin has 25 points in 22 career games against the Senators, getting 10 goals and three assists in the last nine.

Neal has been adding some scoring punch with five goals and nine assists in his last six games. He had a career-high four points in Tuesday's 8-4 win over Winnipeg, then matched that feat with four assists - two on goals by Malkin - against the Predators.

The Senators, meanwhile, have seen their playoff position become precarious during an untimely three-game slide, during which they've been outscored 9-2. They remain seventh in the East, but just two points ahead of Washington and Buffalo.

"Pressure's a wonderful thing," coach Paul MacLean said. "You can find out a lot about yourself and about your team, and how hard it is in the league. For some reason we feel we have that on us and we have to find a way to handle it or channel it into the right spots."

That obviously didn't happen Friday when Ottawa surrendered four goals in the opening 8:21 en route to a 5-1 loss at Montreal, which is at the bottom of the conference.

Production from Milan Michalek could help the Senators solidify their position. The left wing leads the team with a career-high 32 goals, but hasn't found the net in seven games since a hat trick in a win at Tampa Bay on March 6.

Michalek scored twice in a 5-1 win at Pittsburgh on Jan. 10.

Erik Karlsson had three assists in a 6-4 home victory over the Penguins on Dec. 16. He leads all NHL defensemen with 72 points, although he doesn't have any during the Senators' current skid.

Malkin has three goals and two assists during the season series, but the Penguins are 1-2-0.

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