The Pittsburgh Penguins did just fine without Evgeni Malkin, posting a 7-2 record while their dynamic center missed three weeks with a left leg injury. Good thing they had him back Sunday afternoon, though.
Malkin netted two goals and assisted on another in his return as the Penguins needed all their offensive weaponry to best the freewheeling Winnipeg Jets 6-5 at Consol Energy Center. Linemate James Neal had an identical scoring output to help Pittsburgh win its franchise record-tying 12th in a row on home ice.
Jussi Jokinen and Matt Niskanen also buried goals, the latter of which served as the game-winner with 7:22 left in the third period. The first-place Penguins (31-12-1, 63 points) trailed 2-0 after 20 minutes and 5-4 at the second intermission, but successfully rallied despite playing fast and loose for much of the afternoon.
That the Pens and Jets would play a high-scoring contest isn’t surprising, as the two teams have now combined for 40 goals in their past four meetings in Pittsburgh. All four have been Penguins victories, including final scores of 8-5 and 8-4 in 2012.
It looked like Winnipeg (19-21-5, 43 points) might finally get a win in Pittsburgh, led by youngsters Evander Kane (2g, 1a) and Mark Scheifele (1g, 1a). But the Jets’ defense and goaltending was porous against the explosive Pens, who beat netminder Al Montoya six times on 39 shots.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has had better games, although his point-blank save on Andrew Ladd late in the third put a tidy bow on a 29-save performance. Fleury also denied Kane on a breakaway in the first period, but the Jets got goals from rookie defenseman Jacob Trouba and Scheifele to take a 2-0 lead.
Malkin cut the lead in half 1:06 into the second frame, then Neal fired a dart short-side on Montoya during a power play to tie the game at 4:25. Kris Letang, who also returned from a lengthy injury-related absence (10 games for an infected arm wound), assisted on Neal’s goal with a brilliant move, as did league-leading scorer Sidney Crosby.
Neal caught a lucky break to net his 16th goal of the season at 4:59, as his shot from the side boards deflected off a Winnipeg stick and under Montoya to give the Pens their first lead. The Jets’ Blake Wheeler deposited a loose puck to knot the score again, but Malkin set up Jokinen in the slot for his third goal in two games at 11:38.
That’s when Kane took control, getting his 13th and 14th goals on a breakaway and goalmouth scramble, putting the Jets up 5-4. Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien‘s egregious turnover led to Malkin’s equalizer midway through the third, his 11th goal. “Geno” cleaned up the rebound of Neal’s wrister, preceding Niskanen’s go-ahead blast from the point four minutes later.
Malkin and Neal were both hunting hat tricks with the goalie pulled, perhaps overextending themselves. However, Scheifele fired a good chance over the crossbar in the closing seconds, handing Dan Bylsma his 232nd win as Penguins coach, tying Eddie Johnston for the club’s all-time record.
After that wild showdown with the Jets, the Penguins head northwest to face three more Canadian teams on the road. They start their trip in Vancouver on Tuesday night.