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View from Ice Level: The $18.2 million bout

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Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos drop the gloves. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Yeah Evgeni Malkin hit the ice Wednesday with something to prove. A quick glance through any story or its comments on this site will tell you why.

The abridged version: Malkin just hasn't been good.

One thing was different Wednesday, especially as the Penguins jumped out to a 10 minute, 3-0 lead: Malkin was good.

We'll get more into Malkin's effort Wednesday in a minute, but let's jump ahead to the third period when Malkin was egged on by Steven Stamkos and eventually put him into the ice like Bill Goldberg did ... everyone ... in WCW's heyday.

The image you see above is just after Malkin had enough of the egging and threw his arms at Stamkos.

After the game, the Lightning captain was asked about the fight and whether it was something he was looking for. His response?

“I thought he gave me a little whack there, I gave him one back ... and we fought. That’s just hockey.”

And there you have it. A generational goal scorer simplifying the exchange of fists with another generational goal scorer to "that's just hockey." A quick trip to HockeyFights.com indicates that Stamkos has five fights under his career card with Malkin living through nine (although just four regular season).

Kris Letang seems to remember a few more, however. To Letang, Malkin is a fight a year type of player:

“You obviously don’t want to see Geno fighting, but he gets into one every year and he takes care of himself,” Letang told media after the game with a small smile. “The good thing is now he doesn’t have to fight again.”

Malkin has obviously not fought once per year in the NHL. But he's also had his share of roughing minors that looked more like half gloved fights.

But, what led to Malkin being pushed to the point of risking a Zach Aston-Reese-like injury in a game the Penguins led 4-0 at the time?

It started early in the game. The Lightning weren't thrilled at the way the Penguins found a quick lead and started to take liberties. Jack Johnson was the first Penguin to retaliate:

Guy grabbed Yanni Gourde's helmet, ripped it from him and spiked it like Ramon Foster capping off a James Conner touchdown run.

Then there was Alex Killorn giving a shove to Matt Murray after sliding into his doorstep and sparking a bit of a scrum. This is the first time Malkin's anger started to surface:

The fight with Stamkos wouldn't be the first punch Malkin threw in this game, either. After it took Letang a minute to get up in a Penguins' defensive corner after Cedric Paquette interfered with No. 58, Malkin got involved in a brawl at center ice. That's when he pounded into the back of Victor Hedman with his fists:

[caption id="attachment_768055" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Evgeni Malkin punches into the back of Victor Hedman. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Tensions were high, a whack was given, a whack was returned and ... they fought.

"You could see the intensity rising here as the season has gone on," Ryan McDonagh told me about the fight after the game. "Two teams with a lot of talent and skill, but they play with high intensity, too. That's the emotions of the game."

$18.2 million worth of generational goal scoring dropped the gloves. That's the intensity of the game.

THE GOOD STUFF

Malkin being physical, defensive and a fighter isn't what made Malkin "good" Wednesday night, however. But it helped. It wasn't Malkin's Corsi-for percentage, either ... that wasn't so great at a 40.00.

But, the always trustworthy eye test said that he was good.

Not everything was clicking yet for the struggling scorer. But, he looked confident in ways he hasn't. He looked fast. He had those eyes he gets when he wants more than he has. Just take a look at the way he attacked the zone in the first period when left without support:

[caption id="attachment_768068" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Evgeni Malkin attacks the Lightning zone. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

It wasn't just on the puck either. In fact, Malkin looked like he fit with his new line between Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel no matter where the puck was.

Another example ... After already combining for a Kessel goal, Rust found room to run with only seconds remaining in the first period. Despite being up 3-0, Malkin chased from the neutral zone, looking desperate to put most of 2018-19 behind him:

[caption id="attachment_768076" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Bryan Rust looks to shoot with Evgeni Malkin racing to catch up. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

The pieces appear in place for Malkin to move on from his slump. And if the anger that sparked "that's just hockey" can spark the chain reaction to knock them all down, he might just be on the verge of returning to form.

Taking the game's third star by putting up two assists was a pretty good start.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="attachment_768028" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Lightning, PPG Paints Arena, Jan. 30, 2019 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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