Columbus Blue Jackets' Derek MacKenzie, left, and the Penguins' Olli Maatta fight for a loose puck during the second period Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
The Penguins' James Neal, left, and the Blue Jackets' Mark Letestu fight for a loose puck during the first period Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
Columbus Blue Jackets' James Wisniewski, left, and the Penguins' Chris Conner chase a loose puck during the first period Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Perhaps there was no better game for the Penguins in reaching the midpoint of the season than their 5-3 victory Sunday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena.
The Penguins had a rough patch, a comeback, a couple of quirky plays and big games from some of their stars. Their special teams made a huge difference. They won with some different combinations because of ongoing injury absences.
In other words, they figured out a way to blunt a tenacious opponent and snag two points, just as they have done many times this season.
"The one thing with our team, especially in the last 25 games, has been we've won as a team," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We've found ways to win. Different guys stepping up."
Against the Blue Jackets, right winger James Neal had five points on a hat trick and two assists. Center Sidney Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz each had a goal and two assists. It's not a coincidence that those three mostly played together as an even-strength line and on the top power-play unit.
The Penguins' power play was 3 of 6, and their penalty-killers shut down Columbus all three tries.
"It's fun right now when you go out and you're winning," Kunitz said. "We want to duplicate that every time we go out."
They have been, to a large extent.
The Penguins have won nine of their past 10 games and 14 of their past 16.
They reach the midpoint of the season 29-11-1 and are running away with the Metropolitan Division. They are on pace for 118 points, which would be one shy of their franchise record of 119, set in 1992-93.
They've reached this point and high pace despite a wide range of injuries to more than a dozen players. Neal, for example, was playing with Crosby and Kunitz because his regular center, Evgeni Malkin, has a leg injury.
"It's funny. When a guy like [Malkin] goes down, I get to play with Sid. It's pretty special," Neal said.
"I'm trying to find some chemistry with both of them. Sid made an unbelievable pass for my second [goal], and you see him find [Kunitz] for the game-winner. I can't say enough about him. He's a special guy and a special player."
Crosby is leading the NHL with 58 points, including 22 goals. He gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead at 10:51 of the third period on a give-and-go with Kunitz on a play that had to be reviewed because the puck got lost in Columbus goaltender Curtis McElhinney's equipment.
"I can't see it cross the line," Crosby said. "I saw where it was when he fell. It was kind of tucked under his armpit, and he ended up falling into the net."
The goal was Crosby's 260th in his career, moving him into a fifth-place tie with Kevin Stevens on the Penguins' all-time list.
For the Penguins' next goal, Kunitz's power-play winner that made it 4-2 at 12:58 of the third period, Crosby was thinking outside of the box to set up a one-timer.
"You have it drawn up one way, and then Sid improvises," Bylsma said. "The play goes to Neal, it pops out to Sid. It's designed for him to step up and shoot it. He just finds another lane, a seam, to go back to [Kunitz] for the goal with [Neal] going to the net."
"I'm not sure you can defend [the Penguins power-play personnel] or even draw it up for them when they're going like that."
The previous time the Penguins played here, rookie goaltender Jeff Zatkoff stopped all 19 shots to earn his first shutout and his first NHL win, 3-0. That was Nov. 2.
That started a winning streak for Zatkoff that has reached seven games. He made 25 saves this time, but the total could have been much higher.
"They gave us pressure in the beginning of the second and toward the end of the first," Zatkoff said. "They play a hard game. We did a great job keeping them to the outside, really not giving them too many Grade A [chances]."
Brandon Dubinsky opened the scoring for Columbus, at 3:59 of the first period. Neal got the next two, the second one on a power play for a 2-1 Penguins lead at 8:34 of the second period.
Between Neal's first two goals, the Blue Jackets got a lot of sustained pressure but not a lot of shots.
After Neal's second goal, Corey Tropp tied it for the Blue Jackets. Crosby broke the tie at 10:51 of the third period before setting up Kunitz's winner at 12:58 of the third.
Neal got his third goal -- a heavy contingent of Penguins fans flooded he ice with hats -- with a power-play goal at 17:33 of the third period before Nikita Nikitin closed the scoring for the Blue Jackets with 1:29 left in regulation.
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