PITTSBURGH -- Just think, Sidney Crosby will be coming back to all this in the very near future.
Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz won their matchup against Boston's top line and the Pittsburgh Penguins took advantage of a three-goal lead in the first period to win their ninth in a row, 5-2, over the Bruins Sunday at Consol Energy Center.
Malkin seized back the NHL scoring lead, 84-82, from Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay with his three assists and Neal and Kunitz each scored as the Penguins' top line produced three goals. All that production allowed Pittsburgh to withstand two goals from David Krejci, who was set up both times by top-line linemates Milan Lucic and Tyler Seguin. Krejci has eight goals in nine games.
The Penguins' winning streak is their third of eight games or longer over the last two seasons, including an eight-game streak in January that started the team on its current 21-4-1 run over its last 26 games. They won 12 in a row early last season. Boston's 10-game winning streak in November is the NHL's longest this season.
"I don't think anyone is surprised in here," said Arron Asham, who scored Pittsburgh's opening goal. "I think everyone is confident. We know what kind of team we have."
The Bruins not only lost in Pittsburgh for the first time in four games since March 7, 2010, defenseman Adam McQuaid (upper body) and forwards Max Sauve (lower body) and Patrice Bergeron (lower body) were injured -- leaving them with 15 skaters for most of the final two periods. None of the injuries are believed to be serious, and all three will remain on the road with the Bruins.
Boston came in with a two-point advantage over Ottawa in the Northeast Division race but couldn't build on it as they failed to match the Penguins' big hitting and early outburst.
"They're the Stanley Cup champs," said forward Pascal Dupuis, who scored Pittsburgh's final goal. "You want to beat them, you want to put the effort (in), you want to leave your mark, you want them to remember that game. I think they felt us coming."
Especially in the first period, when the Penguins clearly tried to establish themselves physically against a team playing its second afternoon game in as many days. The Bruins also fell behind by two goals in losing to Washington 4-3 Saturday, and are 4-8-2 in afternoon games.
"The way we came out, we were as physical as we have been for a long time" Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "One thing we wanted to do was establish ourselves in the offensive zone with our physicality. ... We talked about making a statement about how we're playing every time we went over the boards."
The Penguins swept a four-game homestand to close, if only temporarily, to within two points of the New York Rangers, the Eastern Conference leaders who play the Islanders Sunday night.
Pittsburgh doesn't play again until Thursday, when Crosby -- out since Dec. 5 with concussion-like symptoms -- could make his second anticipated comeback of the season, against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
"It's a big game for us Thursday," Asham said.
Bylsma isn't saying who will play on Crosby's line, and it's understandable why he is hesitant to break up either of his top two lines.
The No. 2 line of Steve Sullivan, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis accounted for all four regulation goals in come-from-behind wins over Toronto (3-2) on Wednesday and Florida (2-1) on Friday, and it was Malkin's line that was creating turnovers, goals and havoc on Sunday.
"They get a lot of attention and in some of the games there hasn't been a ton of room, teams are matching up against them," Bylsma said. "And maybe they haven't had the same jump in the last couple of games, but today they had a lot of jump and it added to the physicality of our game. I think that opened up the game a lot."
Malkin had three assists after going three consecutive home games without a point, giving him 502 points in 413 career games. Only Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Teemu Selanne among active players hit the 500-point mark in fewer games. Malkin already is eighth in Penguins career scoring.
"Tough question," Malkin said when asked what the statistical milestone means to him. "I don't think about my points. I just enjoy playing the game. It was a big win."
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury preserved the early lead, making 34 saves to win his seventh in a row.
Boston goalie Tim Thomas played in his ninth straight game, but was lifted for Marty Turco after giving up three goals on 10 shots in the first period. Turco, who was playing in Austria until he was signed to replace the injured Tuukka Rask, stopped 20 of 22 shots.
It wasn't all Thomas' fault. The Bruins were outhit by the Penguins 12-4 in the first period, were troubled throughout by neutral zone turnovers, and had difficulty developing any rhythm early on, just as they did in falling behind Washington 2-0 on Saturday.
"We have to make sure we come out and be ready, that's what's killed us the last two days," defenseman Johnny Boychuk said.
"We've got to figure this out quick," Turco said.
Pittsburgh's fourth line scored with only 3:24 gone. Shawn Thornton blocked Ben Lovejoy's shot, but the puck slithered to Asham and he swept it past Thomas, who was playing in his ninth consecutive game.
Matt Niskanen made it 2-0 about four minutes later with a shot from just inside the blue line as Neal effectively screened Thomas. Neal then ended his nine-game streak without a goal by converting during a 5-on-3 advantage at 18:48 of the first, with captain Zdeno Chara and Lucic off for Boston.
Krjeci scored his 19th and 20th goals of the season in the second around Kunitz's goal, his 20th, off Neal's cross-ice pass.
Boston had a chance to get back into the game with a power play created when Malkin went off for driving Boychuk into the boards. But the Bruins couldn't convert.
Dupuis finished it off by converting on a breakaway started when he pushed the puck between Lucic's legs in the neutral zone. The Penguins are 15-1-1 when Dupuis scores a goal -- he has three in his last three games and 19 overall this season -- and are 13-1-0 at Consol since Jan. 17.