PITTSBURGH –With the second period nearly over, the Pittsburgh Penguins were going nowhere against a beaten-down opponent whose biggest star might be going elsewhere in a matter of hours.
Rick Nash had already scored a goal in what might possibly be his last game for Columbus. Jack Johnson provided a lift with his puck-moving skills in his first game for the Blue Jackets. And the Blue Jackets and goalie Curtis Sanford were effectively controlling the NHL's hottest scorer, Evgeni Malkin.
This was of those games that all coaches dread, a letdown performance against a distracted team that a contender figures to beat, especially given that Columbus was coming off a 5-0 loss at home Friday to Colorado.
Only the Penguins – especially Malkin – wouldn't let it happen.
Malkin scored a momentum-swinging power play goal in the final minute of the second period, and the Penguins rode a strong debut by rookie goalie Brad Thiessen and Pascal Dupuis' go-ahead goal to a 4-2 victory over the last-place Blue Jackets on Sunday.
The Penguins (36-21-5) won for the second time in 24 hours to again climb into fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
"We kept going at it, just kept shooting," defenseman Kris Letang said after the Penguins scored three times in the third period. "To be honest, we didn't look at who were playing. Every game is important, and we need to get wins."
The Penguins' eighth win in 10 games was far more workmanlike and methodical than their 8-1 blowout of Tampa Bay on Saturday. Twice in the third period they put the puck in the net but weren't awarded goals, and both times they responded almost immediately, with Dupuis scoring the first time and Letang the second.
And Thiessen, up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) to give Marc-Andre Fleury only his third game off since Dec. 3, made 22 saves for the first victory by a Penguins goalie other than Fleury or Brent Johnson since Mathieu Garon beat the Islanders 6-1 on April 9, 2009. Johnson is currently out with an undisclosed injury.
As he wiped off the shaving cream from the celebratory pie-in-the-face he received from Letang, Thiessen said he was determined not to waste an opportunity he had waited years to receive.
"Going out for the warmup, looking around, (he thought) 'This was this was the day, this was the one you've been looking forward to for a long time,'" Thiessen said.
Thiessen, 25, didn't disappoint, aggressively patrolling the crease even as he cut back on the number of times he tried to play the puck because his teammates aren't yet accustomed with his style.
"As the game went along you could see he was comfortable, dealing with traffic and shots," Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. "Three, four, five times he had to come out and make a save. It was a great win for Brad in his first NHL game."
Even if most of the pregame speculation focused on whether this was longtime star Nash's last with Columbus.
Monday is the NHL Trade Deadline and, if another team is willing to meet the Blue Jackets' reported demands for quality NHL talent in addition to prospects and draft picks, Nash might be gone.
"I think when you're on a losing team, changes happen," Nash said. "It's unfortunate because we've got such a tight group in here and a good bunch of guys, but we realize there's a business side of the game."
But there's an entertainment side to it, too, and Malkin rarely disappoints there.
Sanford, bright blue pads and all, was working on a shutout when Malkin's wrist shot ticked off Johnson's foot and into the net with 48 seconds left in the second period.
Malkin's 37th goal and NHL-leading 78th point might have resulted from a lucky bounce but, as Sanford said, "Good teams find a way to get bounces."
Malkin has 22 goals in 23 games and was coming off a hat trick against Tampa Bay, prompting Johnson to say, "When you're hot, you're hot."
"I felt terrible for Curtis," Johnson said. "He played a great game, I felt bad. But a bad bounce happens like that."
The bounces didn't always go the Penguins' way in the third period despite their overall 40-24 edge in shots, yet they still pulled away for their ninth win in their last 10 home games.
With the score tied at 1-1 about five minutes into the third, Chris Kunitz was ruled to have kicked in a James Neal shot. But only 65 seconds later, with the Penguins effectively cycling the puck, Dupuis collected Steve Sullivan's wraparound pass, skated hard to the right circle and, while turning, threw a hard wrist shot past Sanford for his 15th goal.
Then, not long after an apparent Letang goal was waved off because Kunitz was ruled to have bumped into Sanford, Letang teed up a power-play slap shot from the top of the right circle that flew past Sanford as Matt Cooke screened the goalie.
Pittsburgh was 2-for-5 with the man advantage and is 14 of 34 in its last seven home games against Columbus. The Penguins are 9-2-3 against Western Conference teams.
Joe Vitale made it 4-1 by scoring at 14:57 of the third, but Vinny Prospal answered with his 11th of the season only 10 seconds later. Still, it was another ineffective day at the office for the Blue Jackets, who are 18-37-7 as they appear headed to the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Whether Nash will be with them the rest of the way, the Blue Jackets will find out Monday.
"The past week has been weighing on us heavily, with our group, but I thought the guys did a good job focusing on the game," Sanford said. "It's unfortunate there might be some changes come tomorrow."
If it was his last game for Columbus -- and it very well might not be -- at least Nash provided a going-away present.
Nash, the top player available as the Trade Deadline grows near, converted Sullivan's giveaway into his first short-handed goal since Oct. 20, 2009. Nash beat Thiessen with a wrist shot from the edge of the crease at 9:49 of the second for his 21st goal and his third in four games.
After the game, however, the talk quickly switched back to Monday.
"There's been so many rumors, so many speculation, it's been tough on everyone," Nash said.