By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins’ coach Mike Johnston has an early sense for when star forward Evgeni Malkin is going to have a breakout game.
He saw it early on Sunday and Malkin didn’t disappoint as the Penguins appear to be back in form, the stars shining and the power play humming.
Malkin was the catalyst, leading the way with two goals and an assist, as a three-goal outburst on the power play helped the Penguins to a 5-3 victory against Columbus at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“You can see it early in the game with him,” Johnston said. “He gets out there, he’s skating, he’s hard on the loose pucks, he’s lifting sticks and when he’s engaged like that, he can be a dominant player like he was tonight.”
Malkin scored his 25th and 26th goals of the year, while David Perron netted his 15th of the season and 10th with the Penguins, who won their fourth straight. Rookie defenseman Derrick Pouliot scored his second on the power-play and newly-acquired Daniel Winnik, in his first game with the Penguins, tallied the primary assist on Steve Downie’s 11th of the season.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 of 25 shots for the Penguins, who won for the eighth time in 12 games and recorded their 11th victory in the last 15 against the Blue Jackets, moving within three points of the Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders.
Sidney Crosby totaled two assists and has 64 points, equaling Malkin as the Penguins’ stars are one point from the league lead in scoring.
Crosby and Malkin have triggered the Penguins’ recent resurgence with a combined 11 points in their last five games. Malkin is riding a five-game scoring streak with five goals and six assists, while Crosby has scored in four straight, totaling a goal and five assists.
“I thought there was a time two weeks ago when (Malkin) had a bit of a lapse in his game,” Johnston said. “Other than that, I’ve seen a lot of intensity in his game and the more emotion and intensity, the better his game is.”
The power play is red-hot too with six goals in its last four games, including three in the second period on Sunday to break it open. All this after the power play appeared lifeless through the first half of February, failing to score through the first nine games and 20 chances of the month.
“Our power play has started to convert,” Johnston said. “Power play is a big part of it. You don’t get many chances, but when you get them, you better capitalize.”
Curtis McElhinney made 36 saves for Columbus, starting his second game in as many days. Sergei Bobrovsky was activated from injured reserve after missing 16 games with a groin injury, but he didn’t start.
James Wisniewski scored his eighth, Nick Foligno his 24th and Ryan Johansen his 22nd of the year, short-handed, but the Blue Jackets dropped their sixth straight.
The two teams played 11 days ago, the Blue Jackets handing the then-lethargic Penguins a 2-1 defeat thanks to Brandon Dubinsky’s short-handed game-winner. Dubinsky, who coaxed Crosby into his seventh NHL fight in that game, didn’t play on Sunday as the Blue Jackets continue to look for traction, while the Penguins trend in the opposite direction.
Winnik made his debut Sunday after the Penguins acquired the gritty forward from Toronto on Wednesday. He leads all NHL forwards in short-handed time on ice and his plus-16 rating and 51 shots blocked rank first on the team among forwards.
Winnik skated on a line with Downie and Brandon Sutter, as the Penguins hope to form a defensive-minded group that can shut down the opposition’s top threats while providing momentum-changing swings through hard-nosed play.
The power-play shifted the momentum on Sunday.
Wisniewski opened the scoring at 17:33 with a power-play goal for the Blue Jackets, but the Penguins scored the next five, three of them with the man advantage.
Malkin answered 1:12 later, galloping along the blueline, picking up speed and shrugging off a Blue Jackets’ defender before unleashing a backhander that squeezed through McElhinney’s pads.
An early two-man advantage in the second period helped the Penguins break it open.
Perron banked a shot off the skate of Blue Jackets’ D Jack Johnson that got through McElhinney before Malkin struck with his second goal 1:46 later with a one-timer from the slot.
Pouliot scored the final power-play goal of the period with less than three minutes to play. Crosby’s on-net attempt was re-directed to Pouliot, who buried a shot under the crossbar.
Columbus scored twice in the third, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Malkin and the Penguins’ three power-play goals in the second period.
“There have been a couple big games where we’re more in sync with how we need to play,” Johnston said. “We have some lines scoring and we have more confidence.
“It’s a little bit of confidence and a little bit of chemistry with our lines.”
NOTES: Penguins’ D Christian Ehrhoff was a late scratch. … Penguins D Rob Scuderi played in his 700th career game. … The Penguins won four straight games for the first time since early November.