Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little (18) celebrates his first-period goal with teammate Blake Wheeler (26) during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh Tuesday, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby isn't scoring goals. The way he is setting up his teammates, it hardly matters.
The Pittsburgh captain dished out four assists in his first home game in over three months, James Neal recorded his second NHL hat trick, and the Penguins crushed the Winnipeg Jets 8-4 on Tuesday night.
"You give them space and they eat you up," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said. "That's what they did."
Evgeni Malkin added two goals—including the 200th of his NHL career—and added three assists to lift his point total to an NHL-leading 93. Pittsburgh bounced back from an overtime loss in Philadelphia on Sunday, that ended an 11-game winning streak, and pulled within a point of the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.
"There were some nice hockey plays out there," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "There's some of that tape you see in some highlight videos."
Having two of the best players on the planet playing alongside each other for stretches certainly helps.
Crosby has nine points in four games since his return from concussion-like symptoms. He fed linemate Tyler Kennedy for a pair of goals and helped set up power-play tallies by Neal and Malkin.
Not bad for a guy who has played only 12 games in 14 months.
"There are still areas where I need to get sharper," said Crosby, who had over 19 minutes of ice time. "But everyone is playing so well ... makes it easier for anyone coming back."
Bryan Little scored twice for the Jets. Ondrej Pavelec was pulled in the second after allowing five Penguins goals on 24 shots. The Jets remained four points behind eighth-place Washington and the Eastern Conference's post-season cutoff with nine games remaining.
Pavelec played well, but he got little help from his defence. The Jets allowed Crosby, Malkin and Neal to go wherever they wanted during a wide-open game that showcased how dynamic the Penguins can be at full strength.
"You can't really match up against that," Little said. "They've got so much depth. Every time you're out there you're going to be playing against one of the better players in the league. We had to be tighter defensively and we didn't do that."
Though Crosby's shooting touch could use some work—he hasn't scored since his electric season debut against the New York Islanders on Nov. 21—his vision remains impeccable. Crosby's 11-game goal drought is the longest of his career.
He needed only two minutes to score his first point at home since he had three assists against Ottawa on Nov. 25. Crosby fed the puck to Tyler Kennedy in the slot for Kennedy's seventh goal of the season that made it 1-0.
Winnipeg took a brief lead in the first, sneaking a pair of shots past Pittsburgh backup Brad Thiessen, but it hardly mattered.
Neal scored his first of the night on the power play, a unit that features two of the league's best players. Crosby whipped a behind-the-back pass to Malkin at the side of the net, and the Russian flicked a pass to Neal for a one-timed shot that tied it at 2 late in the first.
Neal scored during a scrum in front of the net at 1:15 of the second. Winnipeg quickly tied it at 3 before Kennedy—who hadn't scored since Jan. 13—netted his second of the night early in the second. Crosby again did most of the work, beating two Jets to the puck behind the Winnipeg net and then finding Kennedy on the doorstep.
The Penguins kept coming in a game that looked like something straight out of the 1980s. Pittsburgh has won 11 straight at home against the Jets—formerly the Atlanta Thrashers—and scored eight goals in each of Winnipeg's two visits to Consol Energy Center this season.
"We don't want to get into (shootouts) but we do have the talent to keep up with any team if that's going to happen," Neal said. "Once it starts going it's hard to pull back."
Malkin's 200th goal came with Thiessen pulled during a delayed penalty. With his parents watching from the stands, Malkin stood in his favourite spot in the right circle and whipped the puck past Pavelec to make it 5-3.
Noel had seen enough, lifting Pavelec in favour of Chris Mason.
Tim Stapleton got Winnipeg within one, but Neal responded with a snap shot for his third goal of the night. Neal had his previous hat trick against Toronto on Dec. 28, 2008, while playing for Dallas.
Pittsburgh is clicking so well that the Penguins are scoring even when they are not trying. Malkin scored his 43rd early in the third when he blindly flipped a backhanded centring pass at the net that deflected in off Mason's left pad.
NOTES: The Penguins haven't lost to the Jets franchise since Dec. 27, 2006. ... Pittsburgh scratched D Ben Lovejoy, G Brent Johnson and forwards Richard Park, Dustin Jeffrey and Joe Vitale. ... The Jets scratched defencemen Randy Jones and Mark Flood and forwards Eric Fehr, Chris Thorburn and Nik Antropov. ... The Penguins have won eight straight home games, the longest active streak in the league. ... Thiessen made 26 saves as he gave No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury the night off.