By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel stepped up when the Pittsburgh Penguins needed them the most.
With captain Sidney Crosby out of the lineup and the team reeling from a lengthy losing streak under new coach Mike Sullivan, Malkin and Kessel both scored twice, leading the Penguins to a much-needed 5-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets Monday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“Obviously it’s a relief,” Sullivan said. “Everybody here wants to win. Everybody cares when you go through a slide. Dealing with those pressures is part of the challenge.
“To get a win before Christmas break, guys can feel good about themselves.”
Kessel scored his 10th and 11th and Malkin netted his 16th on the power play and added an empty-netter for his 17th of the season. David Warsofsky also added his first goal in two years on the power play as the Penguins gave Sullivan his first win as coach of the team.
The Penguins scored four goals in the second period, as many as they had in the previous four games under Sullivan. Pittsburgh had been outscored 15-4 in its first four with Sullivan – all losses – but snapped a five-game losing streak with Monday’s win.
“I thought we just stayed with it,” said Sullivan, who was a longtime assistant under Blue Jackets’ head coach John Tortorella.
“We kept our energy up and made sure we responded the right way.”
It also led to Matt Murray’s first NHL win as he stopped 22 shots for the milestone victory.
“It was exciting,” Murray said. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. I’m pretty glad to get it out of the way and hopefully it’s the first of many.”
Malkin and Kessel helped provide the win with Crosby out of the lineup.
Crosby didn’t play after missing Sunday’s practice with a lower-body injury. Sullivan doesn’t believe the injury will be a long-term issue for Crosby, who had three assists in the last two games.
Pittsburgh is 94-48-18 in the 160 career games Crosby has missed in his 11-year career. Monday’s game was the first he missed this season as the Penguins won three of five without their captain last year.
The Penguins were also without defenseman Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury on Monday. Letang has missed seven of the last eight, including the previous five and Fleury sat out his fourth straight on Monday with a concussion.
They lost Malkin for a few minutes midway through the second period following a knee-on-knee collision with Boone Jenner. Malkin fell to the ice, clutching his left knee. He eventually got up and skated off the ice, hunched over and down the runway before returning to a rousing ovation minutes later.
“It can be a physical game out there,” Sullivan said. “For me, we’re just going to play hockey. That’s the way the game goes.”
Malkin has generally flourished without Crosby in the lineup and he did it again on Monday. Malkin has 64 goals and 149 points in 111 games without Crosby, an average of .56 goals and 1.24 points-per game. It’s significantly better than the .43 goals and 1.15 points per game Malkin has registered in 509 games alongside Crosby.
Malkin won his lone NHL MVP award in 2012 with his only 50-goal season and 109 points, his second-highest total – and second Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer – when Crosby missed 60 games with a concussion.
“(Malkin) is a force,” Sullivan said. “He’s been a constant threat game in and game out since I’ve been here and he’s hard to handle when he’s on the ice. He’s the type of player that’s a difference maker.”
Kessel is below the pace that saw the three-time All-Star score 30 or more goals in five of his previous six full NHL seasons. Kessel scored for the first time in eight games on Monday. He last scored Nov. 25 at San Jose, which was the only other time this season he netted two goals in one game.
“I thought (Kessel) was a threat,” Sullivan said. “He’s a threat most shifts when he’s on the ice. When he’s skating like that, I think Phil is at his best.”
The duo filled in for Crosby, who is enduring a frustrating season with a career-worst minus-6 and one goal in his last 11 games. Crosby has failed to score in 17 of his last 20 games, including the previous seven and is well below his career average in points per game with six goals and 22 points in 32 games.
Malkin and Kessel took over with a pair of goals 4:24 into the second period, erasing an early one-goal deficit.
Malkin struck first, taking a loose puck from David Perron’s work along the right-wing boards and snapping a wrist shot past Joonas Korpisalo.
Kessel scored 1:18 after Malkin and added his second goal with four minutes left in the period. Kessel beat Korpisalo on a breakaway to give the Penguins the lead and he made it a two-goal game when he finished a two-on-one with Nick Bonino with a one-timer from his knee.
Warsofsky completed the four-goal period with a slap shot from the point on the power play.
It was more than enough for the Penguins, who look to forget about the recent pesky losing streak as they get back on track and build on Monday’s win.
“It was a big win for us,” Kessel said. “We lost some games there. It’s nice heading into the break with a win, so hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”
NOTES: Malkin has five goals in his last six games. He has goals in eight of his previous 10 home games, giving him 11 goals and 14 points during that time … Scott Wilson’s assist was his first career NHL point. Trevor Daley has a three-game point streak. … Chris Kunitz has nine points in his last 10 games … Pittsburgh recalled Bryan Rust, the sixth of 23 players on the active roster than began the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.