COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Fifty-one games had gone by since the last time Beau Bennett had scored a goal, and that's quite a drought for a top-six forward.
Bennett had a pretty good excuse, though: He hadn't dressed for 50 of those games while recovering from a hand/wrist injury that had to be surgically repaired.
The layoff didn't show, however, when he finally got back in the lineup Friday night.
Bennett not only scored the winning goal in the Penguins' 2-1 victory against Columbus at Nationwide Arena, but also crammed a lot of quality hockey into 14 minutes and 51 seconds of ice time.
He played without a hint of concern for his injury, delivering and absorbing hits throughout the game. Indeed, he was credited with four, just one off the team lead, and was effective all over the ice.
"That was a real strong game from Beau, real authoritative," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I thought one of the better games I've seen him play."
It came at a good time, too, because the Penguins had lost their previous three games and had been stuck on 1 as a magic number for getting into the playoffs for several days.
Bennett's goal was the one that clinched their spot in the postseason, and, while there hadn't been any doubt about the Penguins [47-22-5] qualifying since sometime last autumn, they seemed pleased to get that formality out of the way.
"Obviously, you need to get in, at some point," forward Craig Adams said. "We'd whiffed on a few opportunities recently."
It wasn't clear for much of the evening that they'd nail down their spot against the Blue Jackets, either.
Neither team scored until 10:35 of the third period, when Chris Kunitz took a cross-ice feed from Sidney Crosby and beat Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney from the top of the left circle.
The large contingent of Penguins fans in Nationwide still was celebrating that goal when, 47 seconds later, Bennett threw a shot past McElhinney from inside the right circle to cap a two-on-one break with Jussi Jokinen and put an exclamation on a wildly successful comeback game.
"I was thinking [of shooting] low blocker, once [the Columbus defenseman] took the pass away, because if he saved it, [the rebound] would have popped out to [Jokinen], maybe," Bennett said. "Luckily, it went in."
Still, the Blue Jackets, who entered the game in a four-team tie for the two Eastern Conference wild-card playoff berths, didn't wilt after the Penguins took their two-goal lead.
Columbus had competed with genuine desperation from the earliest shifts -- "They're fighting for their playoff spot, and they played exactly the way we expected them to," Adams said -- but the Penguins matched the Blue Jackets' effort throughout the game.
"That was a very hard-fought game," Bylsma said. "That was a playoff-type game. To a man, we stepped up and played that game."
Nobody did it more effectively than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who turned aside 35 shots and lost a chance for his sixth shutout this season only when Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski hammered a slap shot through a screen and past him at 16:54 of the third period.
"I couldn't see it," Fleury said.
"I went down to try to cover some net."
Fleury had to fight through screens for much of the game and did it well enough that he stopped virtually everything thrown his way.
"I thought he was outstanding all game long," Bylsma said.
While Fleury's work made the Penguins' victory possible, the performance of the guys in front of him had to be at least as encouraging for Bylsma.
Challenged by an opponent battling fiercely to earn a place in the postseason, the Penguins responded with the kind of urgency that will serve them well if they're able to sustain it.
Bennett certainly did and came away with a winning goal that more than offset "minor soreness that comes with skating every day."
His ice time was somewhat limited early in the game, perhaps because the Penguins were short-handed three times during the opening period, but Bennett handled the additional work he was given in the final two periods with no apparent difficulty.
"It was nice to see him out there with us," Crosby said. "The fact he could come out and play the way he did after being away for that long is pretty impressive."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG
First Published March 28, 2014 10:07 PM