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Malkin, Kessel too much for Jackets

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 11:45 p.m.

Columbus coach John Tortorella lauded the Penguins for how they utilized their “equipment” on offense in the first-round series.

No, the Blue Jackets' bench boss did not have qualms with how the Penguins handled sticks. The equipment he mentioned came with names, faces and jersey numbers, and the most valuable of the pieces combined for 26 points in the five-game series.

“(Pittsburgh) has a ton of equipment up front there as far as scoring goals,” Tortorella said.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan went with a different and more predictable “E” word on the topic of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby — “Elite.”

The stars, no matter the label applied to them, shaped the series to the degree Tortorella feared. Malkin led the way with 11 points in the series, and Kessel followed with eight — each had three points in Thursday's 5-2 win in Game 5 at PPG Paints Arena.

Sullivan, no matter how well he knows his stars, still finds it difficult to predict when an outburst of offensive production might start with Malkin and Kessel, both of whom are particularly potent with the man advantage — each tallied four of their first-round points during power plays.

“It's hard, because those types of players, they have the ability to be difference-makers in one or two shifts,” Sullivan said. “They can have a quiet game for two periods and have a couple of shifts in the third period, and it changes the outcome of games.”

When Malkin missed the final 13 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, questions arose about not only his availability for Game 1 but his readiness to jump back into action against a physical Columbus squad.

The Russian center responded with his best five-game stretch of the season in terms of point production.

Kessel, scrutinized during the final quarter of the regular season for a lack of goal scoring, delivered two of the most authoritative tallies in the playoff series. Both came from the left circle during power plays and involved his wicked wrist shots.

“Whenever you get a chance to get on the power play early, you know you're going to try to make the best of it, get some momentum,” Kessel said. “We were fortunate in this series to get some power-play goals. It's big for the team.”

Will the power play prove so fruitful for the Penguins' stars in the second round, where they will meet either Toronto or Washington? None of the players in the room are foolish enough to consider it a certainty.

“Tonight it was really important for us,” said Crosby, who tallied six shots on goal after finishing with none in Game 4. “To gain some confidence is good. We start fresh the next series, and whoever we play, I'm sure it'll be different challenges and things we have to adjust to.”

That's the funny thing about the Penguins' high-end “equipment,” though. It operates well in a variety of conditions and activates without much prodding.

“These guys, they get big goals at key times that change outcomes,” Sullivan said. “I always have it in the back of my mind that all it takes is one shift or two shifts, and these guys ratchet it up a notch.

Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Penguins right wing Phil Kessel takes a shot against the Blue Jackets in the first period of Game 5 on Thursday, April 20, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Phil Kessel celebrates his goal against the Blue Jackets in the first period Thursday, April 20, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
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