PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby watched the Pittsburgh Penguins thrive in his absence. The longtime captain pledged he would simply focus on doing his part to keep the Penguins rolling in his return from a two-month layoff.
Crosby held up his end of the bargain, collecting a goal and three assists in his first game back from abdominal surgery as the Penguins rolled past Minnesota 7-3 on Tuesday night.
Crosby needed less than eight minutes to pick up his first point since before Halloween when he assisted on Evgeni Malkin’s first goal of the night 7:57 into the game. Crosby added his sixth goal of the season in the third period when he slipped a backhand past Devan Dubnyk as the Penguins rolled to their fourth straight victory.
Malkin finished with two goals and a pretty no-look drop pass to set up Bryan Rust’s 19th of the season. Jared McCann scored for the fourth time in five games for Pittsburgh, Dominik Simon added his fifth, and Tristan Jarry stopped 25 shots to improve to 11-0-1 in his last 12 starts against Western Conference opponents.
Crosby skated 17:53 after missing 28 games following abdominal surgery and looked just as dangerous as ever as the Penguins pulled within four points of first-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division.
Zach Parise scored twice and Marcus Foligno added his ninth for the Wild but Minnesota never really got back in it after spotting the Penguins a four-goal lead. Dubnyk finished with 22 saves, but the Wild fell to 1-5-1 in their last seven games.
The Penguins were off to a solid but hardly spectacular start when Crosby went on injured reserve after aggravating an abdominal injury in a loss to Chicago on Nov. 9. Yet rather than wobble with their unquestioned leader watching from the press box, Pittsburgh hit the gas. The Penguins went 18-6-4 during Crosby’s layoff, the second-best record in the NHL over that span.
Crosby admitted watching the team succeed without him helped take some of the sting out of his lengthy rehabilitation and promised he “wouldn’t get too fancy” in hopes of keeping with the selfless, diligent identity the Penguins carved out in his absence.
Instead, he left the fancy stuff to the rest of the Penguins. McCann’s 14th of the season late in the first period came at the end of a pretty sequence in which John Marino threaded a cross-ice pass to Simon, who flicked a centring feed to McCann just outside the Minnesota crease. All McCann had to do was tap it in the net to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.
Rust’s 10th goal in his last 16 games came courtesy of a streaking Malkin, who chased down a loose puck in the neutral zone, drew two Minnesota players and dropped a no-look backhand to Rust in the slot. Rust easily beat Dubnyk to give the Penguins a three-goal lead 14:04 into the second. Malkin picked up his second of the night 61 seconds later and the Penguins were in full command.
Minnesota briefly got back in it when Foligno’s ninth of the season drew the Wild within 4-2 early in the third period. Minnesota would get no closer. Crosby’s goal 7:41 into the third restored a three-goal lead and when Simon scored 39 seconds later the rout was on.
Minnesota ended up playing with five defencemen instead of the usual six after the coaching staff inadvertently listed defenceman Greg Pateryn as a healthy scratch. Pateryn dressed expecting to play but was sent back to the locker room just before the opening faceoff when officials noticed Minnesota had 19 skaters dressed instead of the typical 18 (and two goalies). Center Ryan Donato, who was supposed to be scratched, instead watched the game from the bench and did not see any ice time. … Pittsburgh scratched D Kevin Czuczman and C Sam Lafferty. … Penguins D Kris Letang became the first defenceman in team history to reach 400 career assists when he helped set up Malkin’s second goal.
Wild: Start a seven-game homestand on Thursday against Tampa Bay.
Penguins: Begin a two-game road trip on Thursday in Boston. The Bruins beat the Penguins 6-4 in their first meeting on Nov. 4.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press