PITTSBURGH (AP) — The first goal provided a spark. The second, optimism. By the time Evgeni Malkin tapped the puck into an empty net for the final score of Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night, the Penguins felt — and just as importantly looked — like a team starting to figure it out.
Malkin and Phil Kessel finished with two goals each as Pittsburgh broke out of an extended offensive funk to snap a five-game losing streak, giving coach Mike Sullivan his first victory following an 0-4 start.
“Obviously, it’s a relief,” Sullivan said. “Everybody here wants to win. Everybody cares and when you go through a slide, everybody squeezes their stick a little bit more and that’s part of dealing with those pressures, is part of the challenge. To get a win tonight before a Christmas break, guys can feel good about themselves.”
David Warsofsky got his first goal in nearly two years and Matt Murray stopped 22 shots for his first NHL win. Pittsburgh’s five goals matched a season high and were one better than the team managed in Sullivan’s first four games on the bench combined.
“It took forever to get one and when we got one, we got four,” Penguins center Eric Fehr said. “That’s a good feeling. I think the guys have a much better confidence level right now. It’s tough when you’re not scoring.”
The Penguins played without captain Sidney Crosby, who missed his first game of the season with a lower-body injury. Malkin, as he’s done all year, generated the jolt. He tied the game 3:06 into the second period with his eighth power-play goal of the season, starting a 16-minute deluge in which the Penguins beat Joonas Korpisalo four times.
“We deserved a little bit of puck luck today and that’s what we got,” Murray said. “It was nice to have the floodgates open up.”
Alexander Wenneberg’s third goal put Columbus up 5:41 into the game, but by the time Boone Jenner added his 13th at 5:23 of the third, the Blue Jackets were well behind. Korpisalo finished with 30 saves in his fourth NHL start.
“We didn’t battle hard enough,” Brandon Dubinsky said. “We just didn’t have enough effort and it starts with our leaders, myself. It wasn’t even close to good enough. It starts there.”
Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, tasked with trying to boost Pittsburgh’s sagging offense. The early going has been tough. The Penguins lost the first four games of Sullivan’s tenure by a combined 15-4 and were dealt another blow when Crosby complained about a lower-body issue following a 2-1 defeat against Carolina on Saturday.
Columbus took the first two games from the Penguins this season, including a 2-1 victory on Nov. 27 that included Dubinsky’s cross-check to the back of Crosby’s neck. That earned Dubinsky a one-game suspension and added another layer of animosity to a budding regional rivalry.
Wenneberg put the Blue Jackets in front 5:41 into the game, taking a pass off the end boards from Fedor Tyutin and slamming it into a wide-open net. The Blue Jackets had a chance to double their lead with a long 5-on-3 advantage later in the first only to come up empty, a missed opportunity the Penguins didn’t let go to waste.
“We did squat on that 5-on-3; I thought things changed right there,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said. “They played harder. They played harder than we did tonight and that’s a big reason why they won.”
Malkin’s 16th goal evened the score early in the second and then Kessel went to work. The speedy forward took a stretch pass from rookie Scott Wilson and beat Korpisalo on a breakaway at 4:24 to put the Penguins in front. Kessel added his 11th at 16:00 on a one-timer off a pretty cross-ice feed from Nick Bonino.
When Warsofsky’s slap shot from the point whizzed past Korpisalo’s extended glove, the Penguins led by three and reached the four-goal plateau for only the eighth time in their last 48 regular-season games.
NOTES: Malkin left briefly in the second period to get his right knee checked out following a collision with Jenner. Asked if he expected Jenner to be disciplined by the NHL, Tortorella responded, “He (Malkin) got up, didn’t he? It was like he was dead and then he was out there the next shift.” … The game was delayed briefly in the first period when a pane of glass came off after Columbus’ Ryan Johansen checked Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole hard into the boards. There were no injuries, though Johansen gave one of his sticks to a woman nearly hit by the glass.