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Neal hat trick powers Penguins past Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- James Neal is making up for lost time in a hurry.

After missing half of the Pittsburgh Penguins' first 40 games due to injury (15) and suspension (five), Neal's career-high five points, including three goals, led the Penguins to a 5-3 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Sunday.

Neal has 10 points (four goals) in five games since returning from a five-game suspension for kneeing Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand on Dec. 7. The five-point game pushed his season total to 30 (14 goals, 16 assists) in 21 games.

"[Columbus] had some good zone time, but it felt like we created enough good chances," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "The way Nealer was shooting the puck tonight, it makes everyone look good."

Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz each had a goal and two assists for the Penguins, who have won nine of their past 10 games and 14 of 16.

The difference Sunday was the power play; Pittsburgh went 3-for-6 and Columbus was scoreless in three tries.

"Special teams is going to win you games," Neal said. "You saw that tonight. We got hemmed in our zone a little bit more than we would have liked, but our PP came up big."

Pittsburgh broke a 2-2 tie with third-period goals from Crosby, Kunitz and Neal, the latter two with the man advantage.

"It doesn't matter how good your penalty kill is," Columbus forward Corey Tropp said. "You put them on the power play that many times in a row and they're going to get their opportunities."

Columbus coach Todd Richards said the Penguins' skill led to many of his team's infractions.

"Most were with the stick. They were reaching penalties," he said.

Columbus, which had its three-game winning streak snapped, got a first-period goal from Brandon Dubinsky, a spectacular goal by Tropp in the second to tie the game at 2-2, and a late goal by Nikita Nikitin to close out the scoring.

Tropp electrified Nationwide Arena with an individual effort that ended with his second goal at 13:42 of the second period. After gathering a pass from Boone Jenner, Tropp undressed Olli Maatta by dragging the puck between the rookie defenseman's skates, then went backhand to forehand before putting the puck between goalie Jeff Zatkoff's outstretched pad and the right post.

The Penguins fans in attendance littered the ice with hats following Neal's third goal, which made it 5-2 with 2:27 left in the third.

Earlier in the period, Crosby broke a 2-2 tie with his 22nd goal at 10:51.

Crosby took a touch pass near the right post and fired on Curtis McElhinney. The Columbus goalie got a piece of the puck, which was pushed across the goal line by Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin.

The goal was upheld by video review.

"It was kind of tucked under [McElhinney's] armpit, and he ended up falling into the net," Crosby said.

Crosby then assisted on Kunitz's 21st goal, which came on the power play, at 12:58.

McElhinney and Zatkoff each made 25 saves.

Zatkoff earned his first NHL victory against Columbus on Nov. 2 on the Penguins' most-recent trip to Columbus. He was barely tested in the earlier game, making 19 saves for 3-0 victory.

It was a different story this time. He made two saves on Dubinsky while Columbus was shorthanded in a 1-1 game in the first period, but saved his best sequence for five minutes into the middle period, with the score still deadlocked, when he made point-blank stops on Blake Comeau and the rebound try by Ryan Johansen.

The Penguins' dominance over Columbus continues. They have won all four games this season, five straight in the series and are 8-1-1 in the past 10. Pittsburgh has also won four straight in Nationwide Arena and hasn't lost a game in regulation in Columbus since a 6-1 loss on Jan. 11, 2006.

"It's still a road game," Crosby said in reference to the thousands of Penguins fans in attendance. "It gets pretty loud in here. [The Blue Jackets] fed off their crowd when they put a few of those shifts together. It's always nice to see so many fans on the road. It's a good rivalry."

Despite more than 230 man-games missed due to injuries and suspensions, the Penguins have won 14 of 16 games to assume the points lead in the Eastern Conference over the Boston Bruins.

Pittsburgh got some good news on the injury front when defenseman Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) played for the first time in 30 games. He had not played since Oct. 26 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Scuderi played 18:01 and took 21 shifts.

The Blue Jackets continue to struggle against the top two teams in the conference; they lost all three games in the season series to Boston. But the loss to Pittsburgh was particularly galling since Columbus (17-18-4) had climbed back to .500 for the first time since being 5-5-0. The only time the Blue Jackets had been a game above .500 was after winning two of the first three games.

Richards said the Blue Jackets were in good position to finally beat the Penguins.

"It was about cracking, and we cracked first," he said.

Playing Pittsburgh tight for most of the game was of little consolation to the Blue Jackets.

"We did a lot of good things out there," Dubinsky said. "But we're at the point of the season where moral victories and small victories aren't good enough."

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