Malkin scores again as Penguins surge past Columbus 4-2

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Penguins have no plans to make a splashy trade before Monday’s deadline, figuring the possible return of star Sidney Crosby before the playoffs far outweighs anything they could get in a cluttered market.

Considering the way they’re playing at the moment, the Penguins look pretty formiable even without their captain.

Evgeni Malkin scored his 37th goal of the season, Brad Thiessen made 21 saves in his NHL debut and the Penguins beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2 on Sunday.

Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang and Joe Vitale also scored for Pittsburgh, which found the back of the net four times in the last 21 minutes to win for the ninth time in its last 10 home games. Steve Sullivan added a pair of assists as the Penguins completed a weekend sweep of Tampa Bay and Columbus with ease.

“That’s two big consistent wins for us,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “I thought we had two good responses.”

The Penguins won their third straight overall behind Thiessen, who earned his first career start in play of usual backup Brent Johnson, who is dealing with an illness. The 25-year-old Thiessen showed no jitters against the league’s worst team. His first NHL save smacked against his mask about 4 minutes into the game and he quickly settled in.

“I tried just to stay focused and enjoy the moment,” Thiessen said. “It was everything I expected and more.”

While Thiessen said hello, Columbus captain Rick Nash may be saying goodbye. The veteran is pressing the team for a trade. If Sunday was his last game in Columbus, he went out with a bang, scoring in his 654th and perhaps final game with the Blue Jackets.

Nash has provided the team with a list of possible trade destinations and his agent said Saturday he was hopeful Nash would get moved to a playoff contender before Monday afternoon.

As of Sunday, Nash remained with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, at least for 24 more hours.

“When you’re on a losing team, changes happen,” Nash said. “It’s unfortunate because we have a tight group of guys but we realize it’s a business side of the game, too.”

Vinny Prospal also scored for the Blue Jackets but Columbus crumbled in the third period. Curtis Sanford stopped 36 shots but let three slip past him during a 10-minute stretch in the third period.

“I thought we played a pretty good game,” Sanford said.

Just not good enough to stop a team that’s starting to round into playoff form.

Malkin took firm control of the scoring race on Saturday when he torched Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson for his ninth career hat trick, the second tally coming on a ridiculous end-to-end rush in which he weaved his way through four Lightning players then tucked the puck past Roloson and let the goalie know about it.

The All-Star forward moved his point total to 78 on the season Sunday, though his fourth goal in two days wasn’t nearly as pretty, but just as effective. His power play goal from the doorstep with 47 seconds left in the second period tied the game at 1 and gave Pittsburgh some momentum heading into the third.

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The Penguins dominated from there, even with two goals getting waved off. Chris Kunitz appeared to put the Penguins up 2-1 early in the third period but the referees ruled Kunitz kicked the puck into the net.

No biggie. Dupuis left no doubt just over a minute later, circling behind the net then beating Sanford from a tough angle from about 20 feet, thanks in part to a screen by Jordan Staal.

The Penguins appeared to make it 3-1 four seconds into a power play a couple minutes later but referees again waved it off after Kunitz briefly tangled with Sanford before Letang’s slapshot from the point hit the back of the net.

Even Sanford was surprised at the call.

“It went in off our guy’s shin guard and I thought there was going to be a faceoff at centre ice,” he said. “It just (stinks) we didn’t get many chances going the other way.”

Not the way the Penguins were pressing. Letang beat Sanford again later in the power play and this time it stood as the Penguins completed a successful weekend that saw them leapfrog New Jersey in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

“We want to catch the (New York) Rangers,” Letang said.

That’s unlikely, but at least the Penguins will be playing in late-April.

By then the Blue Jackets will be well into their off-season. Again.

Columbus—well on its way to missing the playoffs for the 10th time in its 11 seasons—started the rebuilding process last week when it shipped forward Jeff Carter to Los Angeles for defenceman Jack Johnson and a first-round draft pick and sent Antoine Vermette to Phoenix for a pair of picks.

The Blue Jackets’ best asset remains Nash, and he did his best to up his trade value with a short-handed goal midway through the second period that put Columbus up 1-0.

It held until late in the second when Malkin broke through against Sanford, who stopped the first 25 shots he saw with his eye-catching light-blue pads. Malkin’s goal led to a third-period outburst that left Nash pondering the future.

“It’s been a great time living in Columbus,” he said. “I’m a Blue Jacket today and we’re going to do everything we can to move forward as a team.”

NOTES: Pittsburgh forward Arron Asham was scratched on Sunday less than a week after returning from a concussion. Asham played 12 minutes against the Lightning on Saturday but sustained an upper-body injury in the third period after hitting Tampa Bay’s Brenden Mikkelson. The Penguins also scratched defenceman Ben Lovejoy. … Columbus hosts Detroit on Tuesday while the Penguins begin a two-game road trip in Dallas on Wednesday.