PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston can tell a couple of shifts into a game what version of Evgeni Malkin the Penguins are going to get on a given night.
When the dynamic if occasionally detached center is engaged, the Penguins are as explosive as any team in the league. Following a three-month funk that saw them slip off their usual perch atop the Eastern Conference, consider Pittsburgh back. The fact Malkin is leading the way is hardly a coincidence.
The former MVP scored twice and added an assist in a 5-3 win over Columbus on Sunday night as the Penguins won their fourth straight.
"You can see it early in the game with him," Johnston said. "He gets out there. He's skating. He's hard on the loose pucks. He's lifting sticks. When he's engaged like that in the game, as he has been, he can be a dominant player like he was tonight."
Malkin has five goals and six assists in his last five games, a hot streak augmented by a newly discovered backhand. Long a weakness, Malkin noticed better control with the shot after borrowing teammate Derrick Pouliot's stick.
"It's a little bit straighter and it's working," Malkin said. "I like it because both sides you can shoot, and backhand looks easy, too."
At the moment, everything does for the Penguins.
Pouliot, David Perron and Steve Downie also scored for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby picked up two assists and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 shots as Pittsburgh sent the Blue Jackets to their sixth consecutive loss. The Penguins went 3 of 6 with the man advantage, scoring all three goals during a one-sided second period.
"We're more in sync with how we need to play," Johnston said. "We've got some lines going."
Curtis McElhinney made 36 saves for the Blue Jackets. James Wisniewski, Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno scored for the short-handed Blue Jackets, who had no answer when Malkin got rolling.
"We gave ourselves a good chance, but then penalties came into it and it's hard," Foligno said.
The Blue Jackets stunned the Penguins 2-1 on Feb. 19, with Brandon Dubinsky providing the winner late in the third period. Any momentum Columbus generated vanished almost immediately. The Blue Jackets haven't won since, a slide that has turned their disappointing season into something bordering disastrous for a club that took the Penguins to six spirited games in the opening round of the playoffs last spring.
There will be no rematch this time around. While Columbus is stumbling, the Penguins are surging.
Pittsburgh finished February by ripping off victories over St. Louis, Florida and Washington. The testy 4-3 triumph over the Capitals on the road last Wednesday seemed to ease growing anxiety about the Penguins' ability to compete with the Eastern Conference's best.
The revival didn't stop general manager Jim Rutherford from acquiring well-traveled forward Daniel Winnik from Toronto in exchange for Zach Sill and a pair of draft picks, with Rutherford not ruling out more deals before Monday's deadline. Brought in for needed depth and his penalty-killing smarts, Winnik played 13:04 in his first game in Pittsburgh, his sixth NHL stop, and picked up an assist on Downie's goal 18 seconds into the third that made it 5-1.
Yet whoever Rutherford adds, Pittsburgh's chances of making a deep playoff run will rely heavily on Crosby, Malkin and its erratic power play. At the moment, all three appear to be rounding into form. Crosby and Malkin both have 64 points — just off the league leaders — and the power play has scored in four straight.
"Our game is getting better," Johnston said. "We're generating offense a little bit more."
McElhinney made a pair of breakaway stops on Patric Hornqvist and Crosby early in the second period with the game tied at 1, but was helpless when the Blue Jackets went down two men following penalties to Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin.
Perron banked in a shot from the goal line off Jack Johnson and by the surprised goaltender 2:34 into the second. Malkin's 24th goal of the season less than two minutes later didn't need a fortunate bounce. He pounded a one-timer by McElhinney from just inside the left circle to make it 3-1. Pouliot poured in Pittsburgh's third power-play goal of the period when the rookie defenseman pounced on a rebound off a shot by Hornqvist and the Penguins were in total control.
NOTES: Penguins D Rob Scuderi played in his 700th career game, 415 with Pittsburgh. ... Blue Jackets C Brandon Dubinsky missed his second straight game with a concussion. ... Pittsburgh scratched D Christian Ehrhoff to give him some extra time to prepare for a four-game West Coast road trip that begins Wednesday in Colorado. Ehrhoff missed almost a month with a concussion before playing 18 minutes against the Capitals. ... Columbus hosts Washington on Tuesday.
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