By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin returned just in time to rescue the Pittsburgh Penguins from a rare poor outing at home.
Malkin, playing for the first time in nine games, netted two goals and an assist, including the game-tying tally midway through the third period, helping the Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the Winnipeg Jets, 6-5, Sunday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins won their 12th straight home game, equaling the longest home winning streak in franchise history, set last season from Feb. 22 to March 30.
“We’ve been a tough team to play against here, with the fans, and the big talk of our team has been our start and how we come out in this building, but today that wasn’t the case,” said Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma, who equaled Eddie Johnston’s franchise record of 232 career victories.
“This one wasn’t our best in a lot of areas, but this team finds a lot of different ways to win hockey games.”
Malkin’s linemate James Neal – a Team Canada hopeful – helped with two goals and an assist as the two didn’t miss a beat, reuniting on the second line with Jussi Jokinen, who scored his 12th of the year and third in two games.
“I’m not sure there’s two that are better reading off each other and playing with each other in terms of chemistry and knowing and feeling what the other person is going to do,” Bylsma said of Malkin and Neal.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen’s fifth of the season was the game-winner, while captain Sidney Crosby registered an assist, extending his 16-game home point streak. Crosby has a point in every home game this season but one, tallying 11 goals and 24 assists during that span.
Evander Kane scored twice for the Jets, while Blake Wheeler netted his 16th, Mark Scheifele his seventh, and Jacob Trouba his fourth of the year.
The Penguins, winners of 10 of their last 12 and 19 of their last 25 dating back to Nov. 15, won their 13th straight home game against a Winnipeg franchise that hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since a 4-2 victory Dec. 27, 2006 when it played in Atlanta.
Malkin tied the game at 5 with his 11th of the year at 11:31 of the third, poking in a rebound from the top of the crease after a Neal shot and Niskanen gave the Penguins a 6-5 lead four minutes later, ripping a shot from the point that squeezed between goaltender Al Montoya’s pads.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who won his ninth straight home game, sealed it with a stunning left pad save on Andrew Ladd from the top of the crease in the final three minutes of the game. Fleury, who leads the league with 24 wins, is 30-3 in his last 33 home decisions.
“Every time we come in here, it’s a tough place to play… a lot of goals scored by both teams,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “They gave us five goals, so it wasn’t like they were putting on a real clinic either.”
Malkin wasn’t the only one back in the lineup for the Penguins.
Defenseman Kris Letang missed 10 games after undergoing surgery to treat an elbow infection, but he returned and played alongside Rob Scuderi, who appeared in his 600th NHL game.
Letang, a Norris Trophy finalist last year, who has five goals and 12 points in 25 games, missed time earlier this season with a lower body injury that kept him out most of October. He tallied an assist on Sunday.
Malkin hasn’t played since Dec. 14, missing nine games with a left leg injury suffered at Detroit. Malkin registered points in 11 of 12 games prior to his injury, tallying six goals and 23 points during that span.
“It’s always a big boost when you get a guy like that back,” Neal said. “Myself and Jussi were obviously excited, and we try to feed off that. It looked like he didn’t miss a beat out there.”
The Penguins struggled early defensively despite the new additions to the lineup.
Fleury was forced to stop Kane on a breakaway 33 seconds into the game and Joe Vitale saved a goal, sweeping the puck out of the crease during a net-mouth scramble.
The Jets scored on the next trip down the ice though when Trouba gave Winnipeg a 1-0 lead just 1:47 into the game. Trouba’s goal ended the Penguins’ home streak of either leading or being tied at 438:19 minutes, which started in the third period against Toronto on Nov. 27.
The Penguins came up empty on a pair of first-period power plays and Crosby was stopped by Montoya on a penalty shot, keeping the Jets ahead.
Scheifele, scored with 3.9 seconds left, giving the Jets a 2-0 lead after one period when his one-timer from the top of the right circle deflected off Letang and fluttered behind Fleury.
The Penguins quickly put the ugly opening period behind them, taking the lead less than five minutes into the second period.
Malkin started things, scoring his 10th of the year just 1:06 into the period. Jokinen forced a Jets’ defensive zone turnover and dished a backhander to Malkin, who snapped a shot past Montoya on the blocker side.
The Penguins tied the game 3:19 later with a power play goal, scoring 13 seconds into a Blake Wheeler tripping call. Letang, at the left point, slid the puck to Neal, who squeezed a short-side shot over Montoya’s right shoulder.
Neal landed another 34 seconds later, giving the Penguins a 3-2 lead when he fired a bad-angle shot from the hash mark that deflected off Zach Bogosian’s stick and behind Montoya.
The Jets got it back almost a minute later, taking advantage of a Brooks Orpik defensive-zone turnover. Wheeler found a loose puck at the top of the circle and fired it past Fleury to tie the game.
Jokinen put the Penguins in front, 4-3, shortly after, snapping a shot behind Montoya from the slot, but the Jets finished the period strong with a pair of Kane goals in the final 2:29 to take a 5-4 lead entering the third.
Kane didn’t miss on his second breakaway of the game, lifting a backhander over Fleury’s pads following another Orpik turnover at the offensive blueline. Kane struck again with 17.8 seconds remaining, backhanding a loose rebound over Fleury’s shoulder to put the Jets ahead.
It was all for naught following the Penguins’ comeback in the third.
“The biggest thing is the way we responded after going down,” Neal said. “I think sometimes in the past we’d get frustrated and get away from what we’re doing, but we stayed calm on the bench and ultimately found big goals at the right time.”
NOTES: Malkin passed Jean Pronovost for sixth place in franchise history with 603 points… The Philadelphia Flyers are the last team to defeat the Penguins at home, dealing Pittsburgh a 2-1 loss on Nov. 13…The Penguins, in addition to winning 13 straight at home, have taken 18 of the last 21 matchups against the Jets.