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Penguins-Blue Jackets Preview @NHLdotcom

The Pittsburgh Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL, but even before they began their winning streak they didn't have a problem beating the Columbus Blue Jackets at Mellon Arena last month.

Winning in Columbus, though, has proven to be a difficult task even for the league's elite.

The surging Penguins will try to stretch their streak to eight in a row Thursday night when they visit Nationwide Arena, where the Blue Jackets have taken down the NHL's three top teams over the past month.

Pittsburgh (36-26-6) appeared to be in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs as recently as two weeks ago, but seven consecutive wins have last season's Eastern Conference champion right back in the postseason mix.

The Penguins didn't have Sidney Crosby for the first four wins during the streak, but their captain returned from a groin injury last Thursday and scored a goal in a 4-1 win at Florida.

Crosby has played a key role in Pittsburgh's two most recent victories as well. He had a goal and an assist Sunday in Washington before scoring the shootout winner in a 4-3 victory, then scored the tying goal Tuesday as the Penguins rallied from a two-goal third-period deficit to beat visiting Florida 4-3 in a shootout.

Pittsburgh outshot the Panthers 50-21.

"We probably deserved a better fate than having to go into overtime, but we kept going," Crosby told the team's official Web site. "We made sure we played a full 60 minutes and left it all out there and saw some good results there in the third to tie it up."

Crosby assisted on two Kris Letang goals and scored once in a 4-1 win over Columbus (34-27-6) on Feb. 6.

The Blue Jackets, who have never made the playoffs, are 4-4-0 on the road since that game, but they've gone 6-1-1 at home in that stretch to jump into sixth place in the West.

Three of those wins have been particularly impressive. Columbus posted 3-2 victories over San Jose and Detroit - the teams tied for the NHL points lead with 96 - last month, and knocked off East-leading Boston 2-0 on Tuesday.

Rookie Steve Mason made 35 saves for his league-leading ninth shutout.

"It's fun playing this time of the season when hockey means something," said captain Rick Nash, who scored his fifth goal in three games. "We're not used to this."

Nash was held without a goal in Columbus' trip to Pittsburgh last month, when Mason allowed four goals on 25 shots. That was a typical shot total for the Penguins, who averaged a league-worst 27.3 under coach Michel Therrien, who was fired Feb. 15.

Since interim coach Dan Bylsma took over, Pittsburgh has averaged 32.4 shots - eighth-most in the league. The Penguins had a season-high 50 on Tuesday, their second time with at least 47 in the past three games.

"We are spending a lot of time in their offensive zone," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "We made a goal for ourselves to shoot the puck as much as we can. We take shots and those shots are creating lots of scoring chances."

The Penguins will have a hard time getting shots past Mason, who's second in the league with a 2.19 goals-against average, but Mason won't be the only goalie on the ice who's playing well. Marc-Andre Fleury has posted a 1.81 GAA while starting all seven games during Pittsburgh's winning streak.

The Penguins haven't visited Columbus since a 6-1 loss Jan. 11, 2006.

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