By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — The band is back together for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And as it turns out, Blake Comeau looks like the missing piece from a group that started strong, endured an injury-filled month-and-a-half swoon, and now appears to be finding its stride.
Comeau, playing for the first time since December, scored his 12th of the year and added an assist in his return, while linemate Patric Hornqvist did the same, netting his 15th as the rejuvenated second-line led the Penguins to a 4-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings during a nationally-televised game Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
“It felt good,” Comeau said. “I’ve never gone through an injury like that where I’ve missed that much time.
“When you’re out that long, it definitely eases the mind when you can get on the score sheet right away.”
It didn’t take long to rediscover his scoring touch and the Penguins were glad to see the help, improving to 8-0-2 when Comeau scores. He found the back of the net for the fourth time in his last seven played as Pittsburgh, led by Comeau, Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin, looked much like the Eastern Conference favorite that opened the season with a red-hot start in the Metropolitan Division as opposed to the struggling club of the last month-and-a-half.
David Perron netted his 14th of the year and ninth in 16 games played with the Penguins and Nick Spaling his eighth for Pittsburgh, which won for the third time in four games and moved one point behind the Islanders for the division lead.
“(Malkin’s) line was really buzzing and we got everybody into it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We finally have everyone in the lineup and we have to build now.”
Stephen Weiss had the lone goal for the Red Wings, who saw their three-game win streak end and fell for just the third time in 11 games.
“They were good, we were bad,” Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock said. “They played fast, we played slow. They competed and we stood around. We got our lunch fed to us.”
Marc-Andre Fleury, coming off consecutive shutouts, established a new personal-best shutout streak before Weiss snapped the string at 165:06 with a power-play goal, his seventh of the year, in the second period.
It proved to be too little, too late for the Red Wings.
Rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek entered the game with nine wins in his last 10 games, but the 22-year-old struggled on Wednesday, stopping just 13 of 17 shots as the Penguins pounced early with four goals in the first two periods.
Jimmy Howard, who missed the last 10 games with a slightly torn groin, relieved Mrazek in the third, stopping all four shots faced in his first action since Jan. 10. Babcock said before the game the All-Star goaltender is expected to reclaim his role as the starter moving forward.
“(Mrazek) has earned the right to play these games, so we gave him the opportunity he deserved,” Babcock said. “I didn’t think he was bad. I just thought our team was.”
The Penguins played with a full complement of forwards for the first time since Dec. 22 when Comeau suffered a wrist injury that cost him 20 games.
The Penguins struggled during that stretch, winning just eight games. They entered Wednesday with just four wins in their last 11, suffering three shutouts while averaging two goals per game. They matched that total in the first 12 minutes against Detroit thanks to their dominant second line.
“When you don’t have a good game, you’ve got to rebound,” Penguins’ coach Mike Johnston said. “As you saw with us in January, maybe it’s two or three games before you rebound and you can’t have that.
“We kept them on their heels in large part to Geno’s line. Every time they were on the ice, they were a threat.”
The streaking Red Wings entered with 11 wins in their last 13 games, including seven of the last nine away from home. But the reunited Malkin, Hornqvist, and Comeau line struck twice in the opening 12:15 for the Penguins, including the game’s first goal less than two minutes in.
Kris Letang’s point shot caromed off the end boards and Hornqvist pounced, flipping the puck past Mrazek before he could get to the near post.
Then, it was Comeau’s turn.
Hornqvist took advantage of a bad behind-the-net turnover by Luke Glendening and dished a pass to the slot where a wide-open Comeau swept a shot past Mrazek to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead.
“I thought me and (Malkin) had some good chemistry before I got injured,” Comeau said. “I played a little bit with Hornqvist too and he’s an easy guy to play with. (Malkin) is going to have the puck a lot, so we have to be around the net and create havoc.”
Perron did just that on the Penguins third goal 3:04 into the second when he crashed from the top of the crease on a rebound from a Maxim Lapierre shot. It was Lapierre’s first point since a Jan. 27 trade brought him to Pittsburgh.
Spaling gave the Penguins a 4-0 lead less than five minutes later, deflecting a Rob Scuderi shot past Mrazek.
That was all the Penguins needed as Comeau and the second line helped find new life at least for one night. Now, they’re looking to sustain in the final weeks of the regular season.
“We had a lot of guys hurt and (Comeau) has been one of them working hard to get back,” Crosby said. “He stepped right in and didn’t look like he missed a beat. It’s nice to see a guy who has been out for awhile get rewarded like that.”
NOTES: Crosby became the eighth player in franchise history to appear in 600 games. … Forward Beau Bennett returned to the lineup after he was a healthy scratch the last three games. … The Penguins won four of their last five against Detroit in Pittsburgh. … The Penguins visit Ottawa on Thursday, while Detroit returns home to face Winnipeg on Saturday.