When the Penguins surrendered a three-goal lead over a 4:50 span in the third period, things looked dire.
Not only had the Pens surrendered a number of leads in a similar fashion over the course of the season, but this was a team that had only won one of its last seven games. Not a hot team or a team prone to overcoming adversity. For all intents and purposes, it was a team prone to succumbing to such challenges.
But every now and then you get to see something special during a hockey game. Sometimes it's a beautiful goal or a gutsy defensive effort. Or it's a single player imposing his will on an opponent unable to cope.
Evgeni Malkin did that on Sunday, scoring a natural hat trick in spectacular fashion to cap off a five-point afternoon and lead the Penguins to a 6-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of 19,204 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
It was Malkin's eighth career hat trick and fourth goal in two games. He's scored six goals in his last five games.
Precisely what the Penguins needed when they needed it the most.
As alluded to earlier, things weren't entirely rosy on the afternoon.
The Penguins came out firing, and dominated proceedings for the first two periods, and especially the first. James Neal and Richard Park's first period tallies gave the Penguins a quick 2-0 lead that looked likely to be built upon.
The Lightning improved in the second, though were still unable to cope with consistent Penguins offense. Not just shot volume, but shot quality.
Mathieu Garon, who looked likely to be pulled early in the game, settled into the game and kept the Bolts alive. He finished the game with 38 saves on 43 shots, and made 30 saves on 32 shots in the first two periods.
While Vincent Lecavalier (more on him later), Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos were largely opaque, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell were bright throughout, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come later.
Neal scored his second of the game, and second on the power play, to open up a 3-0 lead for the Penguins. Neal's now tied for second in the league in goals with 24 and leads the league in power play goals with 12. He is not an All-Star.
With the Penguins holding a comfortable lead, Bob Errey took time to opine that "for all intents and purposes this game is over." He was right. Realistically, at least.
In actuality, he was was wrong, and it wasn't over.
Matt Gilroy scored a minute-and-a-half later for the Bolts. Malone scored almost three minutes after that on the power play. Dan Bylsma used a timeout. It didn't help. Purcell tied it 6:50 into the third period.
Things not only looked dire, they were dire.
Then Malkin took over.
His first goal came from the left wing. He sliced through the left circle, into the slot and beat Garon with a seeing eye backhand to retake the lead less than a minute after Purcell's equalizer.
Malkin's second came less than two minutes later. Somehow, someway, the lanky, languid Russian was gifted possession at the Tampa Bay blueline and given a nice, large lane to exploit with only one defender anywhere close to mattering.
He came in, took a similar angle, was taken off of his skates and scored again from his back.
Tensions boiled over. Lecavalier tried to check Malkin. Malkin ducked and avoided it. Lecavalier was displeased. He jawed at Malkin up and down the ice. Malkin gave him a little stick jab, then a shoulder bump into his shadower.
His shadower came out swinging.
Before the next faceoff, Lecavalier was given a double minor for roughing and a game misconduct. Malkin was only given a roughing. Neal and Pavel Kubina, who continued to verbally spar between plays, were handed game misconducts seconds later.
Malkin came out of the box two minutes later. Things settled. Guy Boucher went for broke, pulling Garon with over a minute remaining.
Malkin found the puck at center ice, twisted, fired, scored.
A handful of hats from Penguins fans littered the ice. Maybe even from an impressed Lightning fan or two.
A six game losing streak is now a two game trend in the opposite direction. If they beat Carolina on Tuesday?
The Pens are now 23-17-4 and back in control of a playoff spot. Onward and upward.