PITTSBURGH -- Controlling the Pittsburgh Penguins' top line has been a challenge for NHL teams since Mario Lemieux came into the League in 1984. This season hasn't been any different, even with former scoring champion Sidney Crosby sidelined for most of it.
Evgeni Malkin, displaying Lemieux-like domination while leading what may be hockey's most dangerous line, had a goal and four assists to give him a NHL-leading 67 points and carry the Penguins to a comeback 8-5 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at Consol Energy Center on Saturday.
Malkin's linemates, James Neal and Chris Kunitz, also scored a goal each as the Penguins' No. 1 line combined for three goals and eight assists – extending a trend that has seen the Malkin line account for 28 of Pittsburgh's last 44 goals.
There's more: In 26 games since Dec. 10, the Penguins' top line has piled up 89 points (40 goals and 49 assists). During that run, Kunitz, Malkin and Neal have combined for 41 of Pittsburgh's 79 goals.
Not that the Malkin line accounted for all this offense. Defenseman Kris Letang had two goals and an assist in the Penguins' highest-scoring game since they beat Buffalo 8-3 on Dec. 17, when Malkin also had a five-point game.
"Today we talked before the game, we just wanted to just move the puck," Malkin said. "We felt great, everyone. Just moving the puck, it's easy (to) play. (When you get) more offensive zone (time), you can skate and shoot the puck."It was way too easy from Winnipeg coach Claude Noel's perspective. The last time a team named the Winnipeg Jets played in Pittsburgh, they lost 9-4 on March 5, 1996.
No wonder Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called it "a throwback game." No wonder Noel wanted to throw it back; Winnipeg's only other game resembling this one was a wild 9-8 win at Philadelphia on Oct. 27.
"I haven't seen a game like that since … I can't remember it. I don't know what to do to deal with that game," said Noel, whose team had allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of its previous 14 games. "You can't play like that. I have no idea where that game came from."
The Penguins got a big boost from center Jordan Staal, who had a goal and an assist in his first game since injuring his left knee on Jan. 6 against the Rangers.
"There was more offense created by his presence in the middle of the ice," Bylsma said. "There were a few times you could tell he hadn't played in 15 games. But what he did made a big difference in our game, his speed and size, having that big body."
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury gave up goals on five of 25 shots but still beat the Winnipeg franchise for the eighth straight time in Pittsburgh. Fleury is 12-2 overall against the Jets, who relocated from Atlanta after last season.
Fleury certainly didn't get off to a good start as the Jets – who hadn't scored more than two goals in regulation in eight consecutive games – opened up a 2-0 lead on goals by Kyle Wellwood and Alexander Burmistrov less than three minutes apart in the first period.
But the Penguins surged back to tie it by the end of the period on Dustin Jeffrey's third goal and Neal's 29th off a faceoff win by Malkin in the Winnipeg zone. The Penguins never trailed after Kunitz made it 3-2 early in the second during a power-play rush created by Malkin's up-ice pass.
"We gave up more odd-man rushes in two periods that we did in our last 10 games," Noel said. "Quite frankly, I find it disrespectful -- the players being disrespectful to each other, (to) the goaltending."
Still, it was easy to respect what Malkin is capable of doing when he gets it going. He has three 5-point games in Pittsburgh's last 23, a stretch in which he has picked up at least a point in 18 games.
"Geno played unbelievable," Jeffrey said.
Malkin, playing in his 400th career game, bypassed Kevin Stevens and moved into eighth place in team history with 297 career assists. He also picked up assists on Letang's two goals.
"You give a team like Pittsburgh a lot of room, they're going to score. … They could have had a lot more goals," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "It's not the game we wanted to have, and it's obviously embarrassing."
Unfortunately for goalie Ondrej Pavelec, it was a familiar day of frustration against the Penguins as he lost to them for the ninth time in 10 decisions. Pavelec was 5-2-1 in his last eight games overall but, facing an uncommon number of odd-man rushes as Winnipeg opened up its offense to try to keep up with the surging Penguins, turned aside only 31 of 39 shots.
"He should be the most livid guy in the room, (your) teammates doing that to you," Noel said, defending his goalie.
The Jets twice got to within a goal, but each time the Penguins answered quickly. Tim Stapleton's goal cut it to 4-3, only to have Malkin beat Pavelec with an inside-out move on a rush of his own late in the second for his team-high 30th goal.
Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, on the ice for five Penguins goals, got one himself early in the third, only to have Richard Park, Staal and Letang score later in the period during Pittsburgh's 10th consecutive win at home against the Winnipeg franchise. Park's goal was the 100th of his career.
Not that the Penguins – 8-2-1 in their last 11 -- will get much time to enjoy this one. They play Tampa Bay on Sunday night, continuing a stretch in which they play three in a row and 10 of 14 at Consol. They are 16-7-2 at home, but know to that to improve on that mark, allowing fewer goals is paramount.
"We've got to play better defensively if we want to keep winning," Staal said.
Crosby, the team captain who hasn't played since Dec. 5 due to concussion-like symptoms, skated before the game but his return remains uncertain.