PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz have spent most of the last two months carrying the Pittsburgh Penguins while captain Sidney Crosby works his way back from concussion-like symptoms.
The Penguins’ top line hardly looks weary from the burden.
Malkin added to his NHL-leading point total, scoring his 30th goal of the season and dishing out four assists as the trio combined for three goals and 11 points in an 8-5 whipping of the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.
“We talked before the game, we wanted to just move the puck,” Malkin said. “We felt great, everyone. (We were) just moving the puck. It’s an easy play.”
At least, it’s easy the way the Malkin and company are playing it. Kunitz had a goal and three assists, and Neal scored his 29th goal and added an assist as Pittsburgh roared back from an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Jets for the 10th straight time at home.
Jets coach Claude Noel lashed out at his team because of a lack of effort.
“Quite frankly, I find it disrespectful, you know, the players being disrespectful to each other, the goaltender and everything,” Noel said. “I thought it was poor. We didn’t win battles; wherever you want to go.”
Kris Letang scored twice and had an assist for the Penguins. Richard Park notched his 100th career NHL goal, and Jordan Staal scored in his first game after missing more than a month with a left knee injury.
“It was a wide-open game, and obviously we wanted to play a little bit tighter game,” said Staal, who also assisted on Dustin Jeffrey’s first-period goal. “We gave them one too many chances to get back in the game and we obviously did a great job offensively to stay ahead of them, but we’ve got to play better defensively if we want to keep winning.”
Tim Stapleton, Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little all had a goal and an assist for the Jets, but Winnipeg couldn’t keep up when the Penguins got going. Ondrej Pavelec stopped just 31-of-39 shots and fell to 1-9 against Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t much sharper, stopping 20-of-25 shots, but he had the luxury of playing behind an offence that dazzled at times.
The Jets, coming off a remarkable 3-2 shootout win over Washington on Thursday in which they scored twice in the final three minutes of regulation to force overtime, appeared ready to post their second major road win in three days after racing to a 2-0 lead barely eight minutes in.
Yet there is a reason the Jets—formerly the Atlanta Thrashers—haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 2006. Burmistrov’s 10th goal of the season seemed to wake up the Penguins, who responded behind the brilliant play of Malkin.
The Russian played in his 400th regular-season game, and he appears to be getting better with age. In the midst of the finest stretch of his career, Malkin displayed all of his talents.
He set up Neal’s goal by flipping a faceoff back to the winger at the top of the circle that Neal wristed by Pavelec to tie the game 2-2.
Early in the second, Malkin fed Kunitz—with a secondary assist from Fleury—to put Pittsburgh in front. Malkin jumpstarted a 2-on-1 break midway through the second period that ended with Letang flipping the puck into an open net.
Malkin wasn’t done, netting his team-leading 30th of the season on a breakaway late in the second period by deking his way past a sprawled Pavelec. Malkin has 67 points on the season, five more than Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux.
The Jets, 26th in the NHL in scoring, tried valiantly to keep pace. Winnipeg drew within 5-4 early in the third period when Byfuglien beat Fleury with a wrist shot, but Park pushed Pittsburgh back in front by two when he deflected Brooks Orpik’s shot from the point by Pavelec.
“It’s not the game that we wanted to have and it’s obviously embarrassing,” Winnipeg defenceman Zach Bogosian said. “Obviously (when) you leave your goaltender like that out to dry it’s embarrassing.”
Park, a 14-year veteran, raised his arms in triumph after reaching his milestone. His goal was a pleasant surprise, but the Penguins hope Staal’s return will help take some pressure off the line of Malkin, Neal and Kunitz.
So far, so good.
Staal, who hadn’t played since Jan. 6, assisted on Jeffrey’s goal. He scored his first since Dec. 29 in the third period after Pascal Dupuis stripped a Winnipeg player and fed Staal in the slot.
It was a positive sign for a team optimistic Crosby will return before the post-season, though it’s unlikely he’ll get the chance to play with longtime linemate and good friend Kunitz whenever Crosby gets back on the ice.
Kunitz, Malkin and Neal have scored 40 of Pittsburgh’s last 79 goals, dating to Dec. 10. The Penguins had goals from all four lines on Saturday in a game that looked as if it could have been played in the wide-open 1980s.
“We needed some secondary scoring; we got some,” Jeffrey said. “(Malkin) played unbelievable. But we can’t let up that many goals, especially against a good team. They’re not going to let us score eight goals a game.”
NOTES: The Penguins will host Tampa Bay on Sunday night. The Jets will host the New York Islanders on Tuesday. … Fleury’s assist was the 10th of his career. … Randy Jones, Eric Fehr and Mark Flood were scratched by Winnipeg. Ben Lovejoy and Tyler Kennedy sat out for Pittsburgh.