PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be getting healthy at just the right time.
James Neal scored three goals in his first game back from a concussion and the Penguins snapped a two-game skid with an 8-3 victory over Jordan Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.
“It was nice to get out there and get a game in before the playoffs,” Neal said. “I wasn’t rushing anything. If I felt good then I’d play, and I felt ready.”
Evgeni Malkin looked ready too. Malkin had a goal and two assists for the Penguins, who scored three third-period goals in 5:24 to turn a tie game into a rout.
Malkin and Neal quickly displayed the chemistry they showed last year that transformed Neal into an All-Star and 40-goal scorer and helped Malkin win the scoring title and Hart Trophy as league MVP.
“It’s always fun,” Neal said. “It shows how good he is. He made some great passes tonight.”
Former Hurricane Jussi Jokinen scored twice, while Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke also found the back of the net. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 26 shots for his 23rd win. He also had an assist for the second straight game.
“It always feels better getting a win going into the playoffs,” Neal said. “The team’s definitely excited an anxious and ready to go.”
Pittsburgh improved to 23-4 in its last 27 games and enters the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and overwhelming favorite in the Eastern Conference. A scheduling conflict at Consol Energy Center means the Penguins likely won’t open the playoffs until Wednesday.
But that doesn’t appear to matter to a team which won 36 of 48 games during a lockout-shortened regular season.
“The team has done an amazing job of winning hockey games, winning through stretches, winning in different ways with different people in the lineup,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “This has put us in a situation where we want to be going into the playoffs.”
The Penguins nabbed the top seed in the East as newcomers Morrow, Jokinen and Jarome Iginla -— all acquired at the trade deadline -— helped Pittsburgh win eight of 12 games played without Sidney Crosby, who has been out since March 30 with a broken jaw.
Crosby is waiting to be cleared for game action by doctors, but the captain recently participated in his first practice in nearly a month, taking part in non-contact drills, while adjusting to a new shield to protect his injured jaw.
Crosby’s status for the playoff opener remains unclear, but barring a setback, he is almost certain to play in the opening round.
“You’re talking about the best player in the world,” Morrow said. “It’s exciting times. We’re all feeling pretty good right now.”
The Penguins, coming off back-to-back losses against Buffalo and New Jersey, are relatively healthy too, other than Crosby and defenseman Brooks Orpik, who missed the game with a lower body injury.
Malkin played in his second game after missing four with an upper body injury. Neal missed eight games with a concussion, while defenseman Paul Martin also played in his first game after being sidelined with a broken bone in his left hand.
“I think it’s going to be tough for the coaches to decide who they’re going to play,” said Martin, who recorded his 200th career assist. “It’s a good problem to have because we have guys that can step in. Hopefully, we can stay healthy.”
Pittsburgh led 3-1 in the second, but Carolina rallied into a tie in a span of 37 seconds. Jamie McBain thought he had the go-ahead goal 45 seconds into the third, but it was waived off and Jared Staal was whistled for interference with Fleury.
Neal scored his second power-play goal on the ensuing man advantage and capped his third career hat trick with his 21st just 2:38 later, both on feeds from Malkin.
“You play some games without the guy and without the shot and he steps right in and you realize how dangerous he is,” Bylsma said. “We saw him get opportunities that maybe only James Neal can bury.
“I’m not sure it could’ve been a better outing for him.”
Morrow added his 12th a little more than a minute later on a one-timer from Brandon Sutter, the key piece for Pittsburgh in the deal for Jordan Staal.
Staal, who spent six seasons with the Penguins, had an assist and just missed on a partial breakaway in his first game in Pittsburgh since he was traded to Carolina in June.
Kevin Westgarth recorded his first two goals of the season, and Tuomo Ruutu also scored for the Hurricanes, who will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight time.
Justin Peters allowed five goals in the third period after surrendering three in the first two.
“It’s been an emotional ride,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. “We showed great signs of playing good hockey and got good results in the first half of the season.
“We know we’re going to be a good hockey club when we get all our guys back and we get healthy again.”
Jordan Staal, who played a crucial role in the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run, turned down a contract extension from Pittsburgh, and instead inked a similar deal with Carolina following a stunning blockbuster trade on draft night that sent the No. 2 overall pick in 2006 to the Hurricanes.
The Penguins recognized Staal with a first-period video tribute, and he responded, drawing a standing ovation from the 18,658 in attendance.
“It was nice,” Staal said. “Obviously, I have a lot of good memories in this building and this city and I appreciate it from the fans.”