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Neal's hat trick fuels Penguins in high-scoring win over Jets

If this was a glimpse of games to come, Consol Energy Center's crowd had better arrive with a few extra hats. On Tuesday night, they almost ran out.

James Neal had three goals, and Evgeni Malkin and Tyler Kennedy each scored twice, as the Penguins claimed a wide-open 8-4 victory last night over the Winnipeg Jets.

With Sidney Crosby playing his first home game in months, the Penguins flaunted their unmatched skill. Crosby had four assists, including two perfect passes to Kennedy from behind Winnipeg's net.

Since Crosby's return, the Penguins have at least five goals in three of four games.

"Games like that are hard to describe sometimes," Crosby said. "We just kept scoring."

Neal finished his hat trick — the second of his career and first since Dec. 23, 2008 — with 2:57 left in the second period, when he snapped a shot from the right faceoff circle. Neal, who has 35 goals, also scored goals late in the first and early in the second. He assisted Malkin's third-period goal, earning him his first four-point game.

"We have a lot of talent," said Malkin, who now has 43 goals.

Crosby's return certainly hasn't slowed the league's leading scorer. Malkin led with five points, including three assists that prompted MVP chants from the crowd.

Malkin has 93 points and leads Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos by nine.

His first goal Tuesday was the 200th of his career. At 11:31 of the second, Malkin scored on a delayed penalty, when Crosby joined the attack giving the Penguins a six-on-five advantage. A Crosby pass set up the goal, giving the Penguins a 5-3 lead.

The Jets replaced goalie Ondrej Pavelec with Chris Mason after Pavelec allowed five goals on 24 shots. Mason allowed three goals on 11 shots, including the game's last by Pascal Dupuis with 6:33 left.

The Penguins trailed, 2-1, in the first period and were tied 3-3 in the second. But they scored five of the final six to pull away from the Jets.

"You try to keep playing good hockey," Crosby said. "As much as you want to tighten it up, it seems like the puck keeps going."

It was very similar in style to the Penguins' 8-5 victory Feb. 11 over Winnipeg. Coach Dan Bylsma said he disliked the free-wheeling approach that left rookie goalie Brad Thiessen to face 30 shots. But with the roster now healthy, few teams can score like the Penguins.

"It's never a bad thing when you put eight on the board," Thiessen said.

The win has the Penguins back within one point of the New York Rangers, who lead the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with 97 points. Both teams have 10 games left, including an April 5 meeting in Pittsburgh.

Winnipeg has been scrambling just to reenter the playoff picture.

This was Crosby's first game at Consol since Dec. 5, his last before a months-long layoff that ended Thursday in New York. Since returning, Crosby has nine points in four games — all assists. He set up both of Kennedy's goals with quick passes from behind the net, allowing Kennedy to score both from close range.

"I know where he's going to be," Crosby said. "He likes to be in the slot and to fire the puck. That's where I'm looking. You just have to get it to him."

Scoring summary

First period

Penguins, 1-0 (2:04): C Sidney Crosby gained control of the puck behind the net and dished a perfect pass to RW Tyler Kennedy, who fired a shot from the slot that beat G Ondrej Pavelec to the stick side.

Jets, 1-1 (3:35): C Jim Slater got the best of D Paul Martin in a race to the net and tapped in a feed from LW Tanner Glass.

Jets, 2-1 (12:51): RW Bryan Little found himself open in the left circle while the Jets were on a power play and launched a wrist shot that beat G Brad Thiessen to the stick side.

Penguins, 2-2 (16:44): Crosby threw a behind-the-back pass to C Evgeni Malkin, who fired a cross-ice feed to RW James Neal, who buried a shot into an empty net for a power-play goal.

Second period

Penguins, 3-2 (1:15): Malkin crashed the net and, with Pavelec down, Neal fired a bad-angle shot that bounced off the goaltender's back and in.

Jets, 3-3 (3:54): Little took a pass from LW Andrew Ladd and buried a high shot on a three-on-two rush.

Penguins, 4-3 (6:55): Crosby drew two defenders in his directon behind the net and fed Kennedy with a perfect pass. He buried a shot past Pavelec's stick side.

Penguins, 5-3 (11:31): With a delayed penalty coming, Crosby faked a shot and then dished a cross-ice pass to Malkin, who hesitated for a moment before burying a shot past Pavelec.

Jets, 5-4 (14:39): RW Tim Stapleton out-muscled Martin in front of the net and banged in a pass from C Ben Maxwell.

Penguins, 6-4 (17:03): Malkin found Neal along the right wing boards, and he fired a bad-angle shot that beat G Chris Mason to the short side.

Third period

Penguins, 7-4 (2:07): Malkin threw a shot from behind the net that bounced off the back of Mason's pads and in.

Penguins, 8-4 (13:27): RW Pascal Dupuis received a pass from C Jordan Staal and ripped a high shot that beat Mason over his left shoulder.

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