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Neal gets hat trick, Crosby scores in Penguins' victory

| Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, 8:42 p.m.
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The Penguins' James Neal (left) celebrates his hat-trick goal against the Blue Jackets during the third period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
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Penguins left wing James Neal skates with the puck as Columbus defenseman Ryan Murray defends during the first period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff makes a save against the Blue Jackets' Mark Letestu during the third period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby celebrates his goal against the Blue Jackets during the third period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu shoots as Penguins right wing Chris Conner chases during the second period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Blue Jackets right wing Corey Tropp scores past Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff during the second period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Blue Jackets right wing Blake Comeau shoots as Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen defends during the second period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu passes the puck as Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi defends during the second period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky celebrates after scoring a goal against the Penguins during the first period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
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The Blue Jackets' David Savard skates with the puck as the Penguin' Brian Gibbons chases during the first period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
The Blue Jackets' Derek MacKenzie and Penguins' Olli Maatta fight for a loose puck during the second period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
The Penguins' Chuck Kobasew checks the Blue Jackets' Boone Jenner during the second period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.
The Penguins' James Neal and Blue Jackets' Mark Letestu fight for a loose puck during the first period Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dan Bylsma knows the numbers are very good.

He also knows why that is for a Penguins' power play that over the calendar year is clicking at 25.2 percent in the regular season.

“The difference the last two seasons is our ability to retrieve pucks — and when you look at (Nos.) 14 and 18, they are a big, huge part of that,” Bylsma said after the Penguins' 5-3 victory over Columbus on Sunday night at Nationwide Arena.

The Penguins went 3 for 6 on the power play.

No. 14 is left winger Chris Kunitz, whose 21st goal — and 10th on the power play — gave the Penguins a 4-2 lead with about seven minutes remaining in regulation.

No. 18 is right winger James Neal, who scored two of his three goals on the power play.

Neal has 14 goals in 21 games, and with five points against the Blue Jackets, he is at 30 overall.

Kunitz, with three points against the Blue Jackets, pushed his total to 42 — second-best among Penguins, and good for the top 10 in the NHL.

Both players are Canadian. Each has shown himself well — Kunitz over the past four seasons, Neal sparingly in games missed by regular center Evgeni Malkin — when flanking captain Sidney Crosby.

Team Canada is finalizing its roster for the upcoming Winter Olympics, and ...

“It's interesting, and it'll be a hot debate here over the next little while,” said Crosby, Team Canada's likely captain. “I'm glad we're teammates here. I'll let everyone else worry about that.”

Neal and Kunitz played together two seasons ago, with Malkin as their center. They combined for 66 goals in 2011-12.

Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman is Team Canada's executive director, and Detroit's Mike Babcock is the coach. Where those men stand regarding the Olympic candidacies of Kunitz and Neal is of some interest to Bylsma, who will coach the United States.

After all, Bylsma acknowledged Sunday night there is little an opposing penalty kill can do when Crosby has the advantage of working with Kunitz and Neal on the power play.

Consider the sequence upon which Kunitz scored the Penguins' decisive fourth goal against Columbus about two minutes after Crosby's 22nd marker had broken a 2-2 tie.

“We drew up a play there,” Bylsma said. “You have it drawn up one way, and Sid improvises.

“The play is into Neal there, but (the puck) pops out to Sid, and it's designed for him to step out and shoot it, and he just finds another lane and seam to go back to ‘Kuni' with ‘Nealer' going to the net.

“I'm not sure you can defend it or draw (a penalty-kill design) up for them when it's going in like that.”

Neal's 16 power-play goals the past two seasons are second to Kunitz's 19 among Penguins players. They have combined to score 44.9 percent (35 of 78) of their squad's power-play goals since the NHL returned from the lockout in January.

The Penguins have averaged 3.21 goals in 90 games over that span, and that is with Malkin having missed 27 games, or 30 percent of the schedule.

Crosby has produced 17 of his NHL-leading 58 points in 10 games missed by Malkin this season. The Penguins are 8-2-0 in those contests.

“Well, there's only one puck,” Neal said, smiling. “Those guys are so skilled. On any given night, one of them is going to step up. That's what makes our team so good.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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