PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin
made it into the 90s on a night when the Winnipeg Jets
and Pittsburgh Penguins
played a wide-open game more suited to the '80s.
and James Neal
? They sent a reminder to the rest of the NHL that when the Penguins are humming the way they are now, with 12 wins in 13 games and a 24-4-2 record in their last 30, they are a team that no opponent will be eager to face in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Neal scored three goals in the first two periods and added an assist, Malkin enjoyed his second five-point game against Winnipeg in five weeks to pad his NHL scoring lead and Crosby – remember him? – added four assists during an 8-4 rout of the Jets on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.
There were questions around the NHL about how much better the Penguins could be when Crosby returned last week following a 40-game layoff with concussion-like symptoms. At the time, the Penguins were wrapping up an 11-game winning streak.
The answer: This good.
"We have a lot of talent. We have a great team," Malkin said. "We can play physical, and we can play fast."
The Penguins are 3-0-1 since Crosby came back – he has nine assists during that stretch – and now trail the New York Rangers by one point, 97-96, in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division races. Pittsburgh has picked up 25 of a possible 26 points in its last 13 games, losing only to Philadelphia 3-2 in the last second of overtime on Sunday.
What's evident is how Crosby is making his linemates better because he commands so much attention when he controls the puck.
, for example, didn't have a goal in 17 games since Jan. 13, only to get two against Winnipeg, including the goal that gave Pittsburgh the lead for good at 4-3 early in the second period. Crosby controlled the puck and occupied the Jets’ defense behind the net before throwing it to a wide-open Kennedy in front.
Crosby has 21 points in 12 games, a pace not far off that of a season ago, when he had 66 points in 41 games before developing a season-ending concussion. And that's despite missing the first 20 games of this season and 40 more from Dec. 5 until Thursday.
"It's much easier (to return) when the team is playing as well as we are. You always work hard and prepare to come back, but coming in with everyone playing so well … it makes that transition a lot easier," Crosby said.
Even Malkin is benefitting. Crosby, for example, passed up a wide-open shot from the slot midway through the second period and instead fed the puck to Malkin, who teed up a shot from the right circle that beat Ondrej Pavelec
inside the far post to make it 5-3. Malkin's 42nd goal and 200th of his career prompted cheers of "MVP, MVP" from the capacity crowd at Consol.
"To have five points is unbelievable," said Malkin, although he has three other such games this season.
Malkin added his 43rd on a no-look shot from behind the goal line in the third period and now has a League-high 93 points, nine more than Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay and Claude Giroux of Philadelphia.
With his parents cheering wildly from the stands – they're on their annual trip from Russia – Malkin reached the 90-point mark for the third time in an NHL career that began in 2006, and only a season after he had a career-low 37 points in 43 games.
Pavelec never had a chance on either Malkin goal or several others before he was chased after allowing five goals on 24 shots in less than two periods. Pavelec is 1-10 in his career against Pittsburgh and has surrendered 13 goals in his last two starts against them, including an 8-5 loss at Consol on Feb. 11 in a mirror-image game to this one.
The Winnipeg franchise is 0-11 in Pittsburgh since Dec. 27, 2006.
"It's frustrating," forward Tanner Glass
said. "At the same time, that's a great team. When you start a game with Crosby as your third-line center, it just shows you right there the pace they're going to come at you with."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said, "And there were more goals out there for both teams. A lot of that (game) was a track meet."
Just like the Feb 11 game, when Jets coach Claude Noel suggested it was an anomaly of a performance that wouldn't soon be repeated. Still, the Jets continued to struggle on the road, where they are 11-20-4.
This time, Noel said the Penguins simply had too much of everything as they won their eighth in a row at home.
"You give them space, they eat you up and that's what they did," Noel said. "They're tough to handle one-on-one. They make plays. They make plays in tight areas. They make plays under pressure. They've got experience, they've got size. They're just good players."
The Jets began the night four points behind Washington in the race for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot – the teams meet there Friday – but gained no ground. Now, Friday becomes a virtual must-win game if the Jets are to remain in contention, especially with six of their final nine away from the MTS Centre.
"It's demoralizing," said forward Bryan Little
, who scored twice against rookie goalie Brad Thiessen
. "Obviously, it's a frustrating game. We can't put our heads down and be mopey about it because we've got the biggest game of the year possibly coming up against Washington."
Thiessen, who has won all three of his NHL starts, stopped 26 of 30 shots but twice let the Jets tie it after Pittsburgh had gone ahead. But the Jets couldn't keep up with a full-throttle Pittsburgh offense that has produced five goals or more in four of its last five games. Pascal Dupuis
added his career-high 21st goal.
"It was back and forth … we didn't want to do that, but sometimes it happens," Neal said. "We do have the talent to keep up with any team if that happens."
Neal's hat trick was the second of his career and his first with Pittsburgh and gave him 35 goals for the season. Crosby still doesn't have a goal since he scored twice against the Islanders on Nov. 21; his 11-game streak without a goal is the longest of his career.
Pittsburgh is within a point of clinching a sixth consecutive playoff appearance.