Pittsburgh Penguins' James Neal (18) collides with Nashville Predators' Shea Weber (6) in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Alexander Radulov bailed on the Nashville Predators four years ago to become the best player in his native Russia.
In Radulov's return to the NHL, countryman Evgeni Malkin left little doubt who's the best player in the world.
Malkin scored twice to push his league-leading point total to 95 and the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched a playoff berth with a 5-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
"He's unbelievable," Radulov said.
At the moment, so are the Penguins.
Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis also scored and James Neal had four assists to help Pittsburgh pull within a point of the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with nine games remaining.
The Penguins have won nine straight games at Consol Energy Center and finished 13-2-3 against the Western Conference this season, the best mark by an Eastern Conference team against the West this season.
Pittsburgh wouldn't play a West opponent again until the Stanley Cup Finals. It's hardly out of the question.
"If we keep playing this way, good things are going to happen," Neal said.
The Penguins are streaking even with captain Sidney Crosby easing his way back into things after missing 40 games with concussion-like symptoms. Crosby failed to score a goal for the 12th time in the 13 games he's played this season, though it hardly mattered.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves for his NHL-leading 40th victory, passing Nashville's Pekka Rinne on a night the Predators' goaltender wasn't at his best. Rinne misplayed a knuckling slapshot from Malkin less than 90 seconds into the game and couldn't stop Dupuis' deflection less than 3 minutes later while losing his second straight start.
"It rough start and same thing in second period, a quick goal for them and that was the game pretty much," Rinne said.
Nashville hopes Radulov will take some of the pressure off the always busy Rinne as the franchise gears up for the post-season.
The talented 25-year-old left the Predators after the 2007-08 season to go home to Russia, where he won two MVPs and one title while playing for the KHL's Salavat Yulayev Ufa.
Radulov re-wrote the KHL record book—he's the league's career goals leader—before Nashville general manager David Poile lured him back to the team that took him in the first round of the 2004 draft. He made an immediate impact, scoring his first NHL regular-season goal since March 20, 2008, when he beat Fleury on a rebound midway through the second.
"For all (Radulov) has gone through in the last 10-12 days, he hasn't skated a lot, I thought he was fine," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "For a guy who hasn't played over here for four years, I thought he was OK."
While Radulov finding the back of the net was a welcome sign, all it did was cut Pittsburgh's lead to 4-1. The Predators had opportunities to make things interesting but whiffed on at least three shots into a wide-open net.
"We just had to bury those," Radulov said. "If we did that, it was a completely different game. We didn't and they buried their chances. It's hard to win when you only score one goal."
Particularly when you're playing the NHL's highest scoring team.
Cooke continued his transformation from agitator to contributor when he took a deft drop pass from Neal early in the second to push the lead to 3-0. Kunitz added his 22nd later in the period when his crossing pass attempt directed at Crosby deflected off Nashville defenceman Shea Weber's skate and into the net.
Radulov's goal proved but a footnote. Malkin's second goal of the night and 45th of the season early in the third period pushed his league-leading point total to 95 as he closes in on the Art Ross Trophy awarded to the NHL's leading scorer.
Trotz isn't sure that's the only hardware Malkin will place on his mantle.
"If I had to vote today, there's no question he'd be the MVP for me," Trotz said. "I just saw him once up close and he was great."
Malkin may even have an outside shot at chasing down Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the goal title. He trails Stamkos by five goals but now has five goals in his last two games.
It's not something Malkin is thinking about, though Crosby believes there's enough time for Malkin to do it.
"I think now that he's this close I'm sure it's something that he's aware of," Crosby said. "I don't think he has to force anything. The way he's playing he's going to get chances to get goals."
NOTES: Pittsburgh is 14-1 in its last 15 home games. ... Nashville was the last NHL team to play in Pittsburgh's new building. The Predators' previous visit came just before the 2010 Olympic break when the Penguins played at the Civic Arena. ... Pittsburgh travels to Ottawa on Saturday, while Nashville hosts Winnipeg.