WINNIPEG – James Neal is playing with such confidence, he can practically see himself scoring.
Neal scored his team-leading 20th goal of the season to break open a tie game, and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 Friday to win three games in a row for the first time since late October.
Neal’s game-winning goal came 22 seconds into the third period. A diving Evgeni Malkin managed to slide the puck to Neal, who calmly beat Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec from right in front of the goal.
“When you’re playing with that confidence and you’re playing with that attitude, you do visualize,” Neal said.
“When I get the puck on my stick, I know exactly where I’m going to put it. I try to get it off as quick as I can.”
With superstar captain Sidney Crosby out of the lineup with concussion symptoms, Malkin and Neal have stepped up offensively with seven-game point streaks.
Malkin has six goals and 10 assists during that span, including three goals and six assists in his last three games.
Neal has six goals and three assists during his streak.
Joe Vitale, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis also scored for Pittsburgh
Alexander Burmistrov replied for Winnipeg.
Marc-Andre Fleury only had to make 18 saves to help improve Pittsburgh’s record to 20-11-4.
Ondrej Pavelec, making his 30th start of the season, faced 39 shots as the Jets moved to 16-14-5.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma caused a stir when he showed up behind the Penguins bench wearing a festive green sweater featuring a Christmas tree and a reindeer.
“It seemed to get a nice reaction from the fans,” Bylsma said.
Otherwise, Winnipeg fans had a lot of reason to boo as the Penguins scored three goals within the first five minutes of the third period.
Neal’s goal started the barrage, with Staal on following on a power play at 4:14 and Dupuis 40 seconds later. Chris Kunitz had a pair of assists.
The loss concluded Winnipeg’s six-game homestand, which included three games in four nights. They went 3-2-1 during that span.
The Jets were coming off a 4-0 win over Montreal on Thursday.
Jets coach Claude Noel pointed to some fatigue as a factor with the way his team played.
“I don’t think it was work ethic that was the problem,” Noel said.
“There was fatigue, there was some things about some guys that didn’t have legs much…I thought there was some things that happen when you play this many games.”
Winnipeg swarmed around Fleury quite a lot, but just couldn’t seem to put the puck on the net, missing 13 shots in the opening period. They were outshot 14-5 in the first.
“I think we competed, it’s just we weren’t mentally sharp as we needed to be, passing up some shooting opportunities,” Jets left-winger Tanner Glass said.
“They play a pretty sound defensive game and to compete with those guys you’ve got to be sharp mentally.”
Blake Wheeler assisted on Burmistrov’s goal, giving him five goals and 13 assists in his last 17 games.
Even though Fleury didn’t face many shots, Bylsma said he was a difference maker with a couple of key saves.
“He’s played a lot of good hockey. He’s been very good for us,” Bylsma said.
“And tonight, when this game was in question, he had to make some big saves and then was strong in the third.”
The Penguins went 1-4 with the man advantage and the Jets 0-3.
The Jets head off for a Christmas break and return to action Tuesday in Colorado. Pittsburgh hosts Carolina the same day.
Notes: The Jets are 0-7-0 this season when trailing after the first period. … The game was the second of four meetings this season between the clubs. Winnipeg won the first game 2-1 on Oct. 17. … Pittsburgh defenceman Deryk Engelland began serving a three-game suspension for his Tuesday hit on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger.