PITTSBURGH (AP) — The reeling Pittsburgh Penguins had one last chance to put together a complete game and gain some confidence before the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Penguins, losers of eight of their previous 12 games coming in, responded with a first-period blitz that carried them to a much-needed win.
Evgeni Malkin scored his 20th goal of the season and had an assist, and the Penguins beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-3 Friday night in the season finale to clinch third place in the Metropolitan Division.
Kris Letang, Brian Boyle, Evan Rodrigues and Marcus Pettersson also scored for the Penguins (46-25-11), who will open the Stanley Cup playoffs next week at the New York Rangers. Pittsburgh began the day one point ahead of Washington, which lost to the Rangers.
“It’s playoff time now,” Rodrigues said. “It’s a whole different ballgame … a whole different mentality. It’s a clean slate and we’ll go from there.”
Casey DeSmith, starting for the fifth time in six games with All-Star goalie Tristan Jarry out indefinitely with a foot injury, stopped 33 shots. The Penguins beat the Blue Jackets for the 15th time in 19 meetings dating back to Feb. 3, 2017. Pittsburgh also won its 11th straight at home against Columbus dating back to Dec. 21, 2015.
“I really liked our energy,” Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan said. “When you get a three-goal lead, that puts our team in a good spot.”
Oliver Bjorkstrand had a goal for the fourth straight game for Columbus (37-38-7), and Gustav Nyquist and Justin Danforth also scored. Jakub Voracek had two assists and now has 800 for his career. The Blue Jackets scored a franchise-best 257th goal this season, but lost for the sixth time in their last eight games.
J-F Berube started in goal for Columbus and gave up three goals on eight shots in the first 6 1/2 minutes. He was replaced by Elvis Merzilikins, who had 40 saves the rest of the way.
“This was going to be a tough game,” Blue Jackets’ coach Brad Larsen said. “But you look at the amount of guys we had out of our lineup, the guys that played tonight, they played hard.”
Pittsburgh scored three times in the opening 6:26, outshooting the Blue Jackets 8-0.
Malkin opened the scoring at 3:51 when he put his own rebound behind Berube from the top of the crease.
On Pittsburgh’s second goal at 5:31, Berube came out to poke away a loose puck. However, Rodrigues was on the doorstep and put a shot between Berube’s pads for a 2-0 lead.
Pettersson gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead just 55 seconds later on a one-time setup from Malkin from in close.
Danforth put Columbus on the board at 10:25 of the second. Gabriel Carlsson’s point shot squeezed through DeSmith’s equipment and Danforth pushed a trickling puck across the line.
Columbus had momentum throughout parts of the second period and pressed for a second goal. However, Letang and Boyle each scored in the final 3:30 of the period to make it a 5-1.
Letang finished Brock McGinn’s pass with a one-timer with 3:30 left for his 10th and Pettersson’s point shot hit Boyle near the post with 1:06 to play.
“We had a hot start,” Boyle said. “I loved how we started. I loved the emotion and energy. Those are things we’re going to need to do come playoff time.”
Pittsburgh sought consistency and confidence heading into next week’s playoffs.
The Penguins found what they were looking for early in the game and at the end of the second period. But Pittsburgh was uneven at times in the second and third with Columbus pressing.
The Penguins own the longest active playoff streak in North American professional sports at 16 consecutive seasons, but they have seven wins in their last 18 games overall.
Pittsburgh has been outshot in four of six games since Jarry went down. The Penguins have allowed at least 40 shots in three of its last five contests overall.
Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018, when its bid for a three-peat ended in the second round against Washington. The Penguins are 3-13 in their last 16 postseason games.
“When we can dictate terms, that’s when we’re at our best,” Sullivan said. “There’s areas where we know we can improve. A lot of it is attention to detail and commitment. But there was a lot to like.”
MALKIN HITS 20 GOALS AGAIN
Malkin reached the 20-goal plateau for the 13th time in his career. Only Sidney Crosby (14) has more such instances in team history.
Malkin missed the first half of the year following offseason knee surgery, but he finished the season as a point-per-game player with 20 goals and 42 points in 41 games.
Malkin has been held off the scoresheet twice in 16 career home games against Columbus. Overall, he has points in 14 of his last 15 versus the Blue Jackets.
LETANG ESTABLISHES A NEW BEST
Letang established a new career high in points following his second-period goal.
The 35-year-old Letang, in his 16th NHL season, has 10 goals and 68 points. That bettered his previous career-high set during the 2015-16 season.
Letang hit the 10-goal mark for the eighth time in his career, becoming the fifth-active defenseman with eight-plus seasons of 10 or more goals since 2006-07, his rookie season.