PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin woke up Sunday morning, texted Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and told him he was good to go after missing nine games because of an ailing left leg.
Sure looked like it.
The Russian star scored twice and added an assist, helping the Penguins rally past Winnipeg 6-5 to extend their home winning streak to 12 straight. James Neal added two goals and Jussi Jokinen scored for the third time in the last two games as Pittsburgh’s second line kept the Penguins in it until Matt Niskanen’s slap shot with 7:22 remaining won it.
“It’s always a big boost when you get a guy like (Malkin) back,” Neal said. “Myself and Jussi were obviously excited. We try to feed off that. It looked like he didn’t miss a beat out there. He was his normal self.”
So were the Penguins after an atypical start. Pittsburgh trailed by two early but came roaring back to remain unbeaten at home since Nov. 13. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots, including three sprawling saves in the final minute.
Bylsma won his 232nd game with Pittsburgh, moving into a tie with Eddie Johnston for the most victories in franchise history.
“They got up on us,” Bylsma said. “But there has been with this team, finding a lot of different ways to win hockey games.”
The Penguins almost always do against Winnipeg. The Jets have lost each of their last 13 trips to Pittsburgh.
Evander Kane had two goals and an assist for Winnipeg. Jacob Trouba, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele also scored for the Jets, who remained winless in Pittsburgh since 2006. Al Montoya made 33 saves, but couldn’t make an early 2-0 lead stand up.
“That’s one of the most talented teams in the league,” Winnipeg’s Olli Jokinen said. “You can’t try to outscore them. You have to try to find a way to play the good defense and make sure you get the puck on their goal line and on a few goals they made us look pretty bad.”
Malkin did his part, hardly looking rusty in his first game in three weeks.
His 10th goal of the season put Pittsburgh on the board and his 11th tied it at 5 midway through the third period as the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins extended their home dominance. Pittsburgh’s 12-game run at Consol Energy Center matches that 12-game run the club put together between Feb. 22-March 30, 2013.
This one, however, was harder than most.
The Jets, less than 24 hours removed from a dismal 4-1 loss to Boston, hardly looked like a team overwhelmed by Pittsburgh’s home-ice advantage or the return of Malkin and Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, who missed 10 games with an elbow injury.
Winnipeg took the lead just 1:47 into the game as Trouba pounced on an Olli Jokinen rebound and flipped it into the open net.
Trouba’s fourth goal of the season also stopped a streak of 438:19 of game time in which the Penguins had been either in the lead or tied at home, a streak that dates to Nov. 27.
Pittsburgh had a chance to even it late in the first period when Sidney Crosby was interfered with on a breakaway. His penalty shot was knocked out of harm’s way by Montoya, leaving Crosby without a penalty shot goal during his career (0 for 4).
Scheifele made it 2-0 with just 4 seconds left in the first on a knuckler that Fleury couldn’t get a handle on.
All it did was set the stage for a furious second period in which the teams combined to score seven times on just 24 shots.
A Winnipeg turnover led to a nasty wrist shot from Malkin for his first goal since Dec. 14. Neal followed by scoring twice in 34 seconds to give Pittsburgh the lead.
The Jets, however, would not go away. Kane beat Fleury twice, beating Fleury with a beautiful backhand on a breakaway then emerging from a mad scramble to flip the puck over Fleury with 17 seconds left in the second to put Pittsburgh’s home streak in serious jeopardy.
For a few minutes anyway. Malkin tied it at 5 by stuffing in a rebound 8:29 into the third period and Niskanen put the Penguins in front for good with a one-timer from the point that eluded Montoya.
Fleury made a pair of big stops in the final minute, including getting a glove on a wrist shot by Scheifele with 3 seconds remaining to push his win total to an NHL-best 24.
Notes: Bylsma is 232-104-26 in four-plus seasons with the Penguins. Johnston went 232-224-80 in two different stints with Pittsburgh. … The Penguins begin a three-game trip through Western Canada Tuesday in Vancouver. … The Jets finished their three-game East Coast swing 0-3. … Crosby finished with one assist to extend his home point streak to 16 games.