NHL: Neal nets hat trick, five points as Pens beat Columbus
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a record pace halfway through the season.
Imagine what they might do if they get healthy.
James Neal scored three times and had two assists, and Sidney Crosby added the go-ahead goal and set up two other tallies to lead the Penguins past the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-3, on Sunday night.
“With the injuries we’ve had, the guys have come in, and the job they’ve done is a big reason why we’ve had a decent first half,” Crosby said after the Penguins improved to 29-11-1. “We were at a point where we started to lose guys and it could have gone either way. But we’ve found a way to survive.”
Not only survive, but flourish.
Their 29 wins eclipsed the previous franchise record for victories through 41 games, snapping a tie with the 1992-93 team which won a franchise-record 56 games.
The Penguins’ 59 points are just one behind that team that was led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. The Penguins are on pace for 58-22-2 record — again just a point behind the club mark of 119 put up by the ‘92-93 team.
The Penguins have done it despite losing defensemen Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Paul Martin for extended stretches, along with forwards Pascal Dupuis, Chuck Kobasew and superstar Evgeni Malkin, along with backup goalie Tomas Vokoun.
“The one thing about our team, especially over the last 25 games, we’ve won as a team,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We’ve found ways to win. Different guys have been stepping up.”
Chris Kunitz added his 21st goal and two assists, and Jeff Zatkoff made 25 saves for the Penguins, who have won all four meetings with Columbus this season.
Crosby’s shot, which broke a 2-2 tie midway through the third period, was initially stopped by Curtis McElhinney. But Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin plowed into McElhinney, and the puck ended up over the goal line. It was Crosby’s 22nd goal of the season off a feed from Kunitz on a 2-on-2 rush.
“I saw it when (McElhinney) fell on it and it was sort of tucked under his armpit, and ended up falling into the net,” Crosby said.
Neal scored twice on the power play — the Penguins were 3-for-6 with the advantage — including his third goal of the night and 14th of the season with 2:27 left which gave him a career-high five points.
He credited Crosby and Kunitz for making his job easy.
“There’s only one puck out there, and those guys are so skilled,” he said. “On any given night, one of them is going to step up. That’s just the way it is. It’s fun to be able to be around guys like that. They’re unbelievable.”
Brandon Dubinsky, Corey Tropp and Nikita Nikitin scored for the Blue Jackets before a season-high home crowd of 18,871. Nikitin also had an assist.
Moments after Crosby scored, he sent a cross-ice pass to Kunitz for a one-timed shot that pushed Pittsburgh’s lead to two. Neal’s final goal sealed the win.
Zatkoff, who earned his first career shutout in Columbus on Nov. 2, had 25 saves.
The Blue Jackets more than held their own when the teams were at even strength. For large portions of the first and second periods, they controlled the puck and pressured the Penguins in their zone.
But eventually they blinked, and that was all the Penguins needed.
“For me, it was about cracking and we cracked first,” Columbus coach Todd Richards said. “It was a 2-2 game, and I liked the way we started the third period. But we were the team that broke first.”
NOTES: Scuderi, who had missed 29 games with a broken ankle, returned. ... Blue Jackets left wing Blake Comeau played in his 400th NHL game. ... Columbus recalled center Ryan Craig from AHL Springfield on Sunday and then sent him back when fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie was able to play after taking a puck off the shin on Friday. ... Pittsburgh was without Malkin, Dupuis, Martin and Letang. Columbus was missing Nathan Horton, Marian Gaborik, Matt Calvert, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.