The last time Winnipeg visited the Steel City on March 5, 1996, Petr Nedved scored four goals to lead the Penguins to a 9-4 rout of the Jets. On Saturday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center, it was déjà vu all over again as the clubs combined for another 13 goals. This time around NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin (67 points) led the cavalry charge, notching a goal and four assists to pace a wild 8-5 Pens victory.
Coming off a rare three-day break, it took the home team some time to warm to the task. While the Pens taxied on the runway, the Jets pounced. At 5:17 Kyle Wellwood directed the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury, courtesy of a nice feed off the wall by Tobias Enstrom. Three minutes later Cal O’Reilly scored his first goal in a Penguins uniform—albeit into his own net.
Down 2-0 and gasping for air, the Pens got a much needed boost from Jordan Staal at the 12-minute mark. Playing in his first game in over a month, the big center made a nice chip pass off the boards to Dustin Jeffrey. Scooping up the puck in full flight, Jeffrey hurtled into the Winnipeg zone and snapped a sizzling wrister over the left shoulder of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Suddenly, the Penguins were cleared for takeoff. With three minutes left in the opening period Malkin won a big faceoff and drew the puck back to James Neal at the top of the left circle. Wasting no time, No. 18 ripped a bullet over Pavelec’s outstretched glove to knot the score at 2-2.
The onslaught continued in the second period as Pittsburgh piled up a decisive 15-4 edge on the shot clock. Chris Kunitz struck for his first goal in nine games (and second in 17 games) on the power play at 3:12 to stake the Pens to a 3-2 lead. Midway through the frame Kris Letang converted on a 2-on-1 break, thanks to a pretty pass from Malkin.
Following a fluke goal by the Jets’ Tim Stapleton at 14:19, Malkin put a pronounced exclamation point on the period. Skating in his 400th career game, “Geno” gathering in a lead pass from Kunitz and beat Pavelec with a dazzling shake-and-bake move for his team-best 30th goal of the season.
“(Malkin) played unbelievable,” Jeffrey said.
Much to the delight and entertainment of the 18,602 fans in attendance, the teams continued to fill the nets during the final 20 minutes. Dustin Byfuglien closed the gap to 5-4 at 4:35 when he beat Fleury from the right-wing circle. It took the Pens just 19 seconds to answer, as Richard Park scored his 100th career goal on a perfectly placed deflection. At 7:48 Staal steamed down the slot and whipped a wrist shot past the beleaguered Palevec to up the Pens’ lead to 7-4. After the Jets’ Bryan Little countered midway through the period, Letang capped off the ode to fire-wagon hockey with his second goal of the afternoon.
“We talked before the game, we wanted to just move the puck,” Malkin said. “We felt great, everyone. (We were) just moving the puck. It’s an easy play.”
Malkin (five points) was named No. 1 star … Letang (two goals and an assist) was voted No. 2 star … Kunitz (four points) earned the No. 3 star … Pittsburgh outshot Winnipeg (39-25) … Letang paced the Pens with a plus-three … Kunitz, Malkin, Neal, and Brooks Orpik were plus-two each … Tyler Kennedy was diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain … Colin McDonald and Jason Williams were returned to Wilkes-Barre … Arron Asham, Sidney Crosby, Simon Despres, Tyler Kennedy, and Ben Lovejoy were scratches.
The Penguins (31-19-5) host streaking Tampa Bay (23-24-6) at CONSOL Energy Center on Sunday night. The third-place Pens (67 points) leapfrogged the Devils, who lost to Florida 3-1. The black and gold trail second-place Philadelphia by two points in the Atlantic Division race. Nine of the team’s next 13 games are at home.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.