PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin scoring, that’s expected.
Sidney Crosby scoring, that’s expected. Kris Letang enjoying multiple-goal games 10 days apart? That’s not expected at all.
Letang scored twice on goals set up by Crosby as the Pittsburgh Penguins won successive games for only the second time in 2 1/2 months, beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 in a Friday night matchup of teams trying to climb back into their conference playoff races.
Crosby also scored into an empty net in the final minute as the Penguins, who had lost three of four, used a three-goal second period to move within one point of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They followed up on their 4-3 win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night in which they trailed 3-0 in the third period.
“We were trying to build on the last game, we had a great comeback and it was really good for the whole team,” Letang said. “I think our problem before was we really didn’t work together, one night only one line showed up and the next night another line showed up. It was a problem.”
Since winning six in a row in mid-November, the Penguins had won consecutive games only once, on Jan. 16 (Ducks) and Jan. 18 (Rangers).
“We were not playing together,” Letang said of the Penguins’ inconsistency. “Our team is young, we know we’re good and we have talent … but you have to put your work boots on and go to work.”
Pittsburgh and Carolina have 57 points each, or one point behind eighth-place Florida. The Penguins play the Red Wings on Sunday in Detroit’s first visit to Pittsburgh since winning the Stanley Cup there in June.
“It’s a playoff mentality right now, we have to move on to the next one,” Crosby said.
Columbus, two points out of the No. 8 spot in the Western, played for the first time in 20 games without rookie goalie Steve Mason and lost its third in a row and fifth in seven games.
“We got down a goal and we were trying to force pucks to the middle and trying to get it all back in one play instead of just playing the game, playing our system and working from there,” Michael Peca said.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 33 saves but was denied his third shutout of the season when Fedor Tyutin scored on a power play midway through the third.
NHL scoring leader Malkin scored twice and had an assist in leading that Wednesday night comeback, but it was Letang who provided the offence against Columbus.
“He made two nice shots there and was handling the puck well,” Crosby said. “He’s smart jumping into the play, when he trusts his instincts, and goes in when it’s necessary. He creates a lot.”
Until the second-year defenceman scored twice against the Rangers during a 6-2 win on Jan. 28, Letang had only one goal this season and nine goals in his career.
Letang gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead by scoring from along the goal line on a power play at 5:33 of the second with the Blue Jackets’ R.J. Umberger off for hooking. Umberger, a Pittsburgh native, had several dozen friends and family members in the crowd.
“It’s just tough when you’re on the road and you give up that first goal like that, it takes the wind out of the guys, especially when we’re playing pretty well,” goalie Wade Dubielewicz said. “It’s pretty disappointing.”
Columbus’ Manny Malhotra came close to tying it, but his close-range shot deflected off the left post. That allowed Pittsburgh’s Petr Sykora to make it 2-0 by redirecting Brooks Orpik’s pass to the slot past Dubielewicz, who was playing only his second game with Columbus.
Mason sat out with an ongoing case of pneumonia after starting the previous 19 games.
Letang, who came in with 11 goals in 118 career games, scored again later in the third when Crosby took two defenders with him as he skated toward the net, only to make a no-look drop pass to an undefended Letang at the left circle faceoff dot.
Notes: Malkin, limited to one assist, leads the league with 80 points. Crosby is second with 72. … Columbus is 8-3-1 against the Eastern Conference. … The Penguins again faced a goalie playing only his second game with his new team. They staged their Tampa Bay comeback against Mike McKenna. … The Penguins’ next two games are against the West’s two top teams, San Jose and Detroit. … Columbus, which began the game with an NHL-worst 11.8 power-play percentage, went 1-for-5 with the man advantage.