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The Rangers will be the enemy of the playoffs

By Dan Scifo

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – The shocked Pittsburgh Penguins had one last chance to prepare for a full game and build confidence before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Penguins, losers of eight of their previous 12 games, responded with a first-period blitz that led them to a well-deserved victory.

Evgeni Malkin scored his 20th goal of the season and added 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 open the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week at the New York Rangers. Pittsburgh started the day one point ahead of Washington, which lost to the Rangers.

“It’s playoff time now” said Rodrigues. “It’s a whole different ball game…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 guard Tristan Jarry out indefinitely with a foot injury, stopped 33 shots. The Penguins beat the Blue Jackets for the 15th time in 19 games since Feb. 3, 2017. Pittsburgh also won its 11th straight at home against Columbus since Dec. 21, 2015.

“I really liked our energy” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “When you get a three-goal lead, it puts our team in a good position.”

Oliver Bjorkstrand scored for the fourth consecutive 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.

JF Berube started in the Columbus net and allowed three goals on eight shots in the opening 6¢ minutes. He was replaced by Elvis Merzilikins, who made 40 saves the rest of the way.

“It was going to be a tough match” said Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen. “But you look at the number of guys we had out of our lineup, the guys who played tonight, they played hard.”

Pittsburgh scored three times in the first 6:26, edging 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 fend off a loose puck. However, Rodrigues was on the doorstep and put a shot through Berube’s pads for a 2-0 lead.

Pettersson gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead just 55 seconds later on a unique Malkin setup from close quarters.

Danforth put Columbus on the board at 10:25 of the second. Gabriel Carlsson’s point shot snuck through DeSmith’s gear and Danforth pushed a dripping puck across the line.

Columbus had momentum throughout parts of the second period and pushed for a second goal. However, Letang and Boyle each scored in the final 3:30 of the period to make it 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 left.

“We had a hot start” Boyle said. “I loved the way we started. I loved the emotion and the energy. Those are things we’ll have to do come playoff time.”

Search for consistency

Pittsburgh has been looking for consistency and confidence heading into next week’s playoffs.

The Penguins found what they were looking for early in the game and late in the second period. But Pittsburgh was patchy at times in the second and third with Columbus pressing.

The Penguins have 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 beaten in four of six games since Jarry’s fall. The Penguins have allowed at least 40 shots in three of their last five games overall.

Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff since 2018, when its bid for a treble ended in the second round against Washington. The Penguins are 3-13 in their last 16 playoff games.

“When we can dictate terms, that’s when we’re at our best,” said Sullivan. “There are areas where we know we can improve. A lot of it is about attention to detail and commitment. But there was a lot to like.

Malkin strikes again

Malkin reached 20 goals for the 13th time in his career. Only Sidney Crosby (14) has more such examples in team history.

Malkin missed the first half of the year after knee surgery in the offseason, but he finished the season as a point-per-game player with 20 goals and 42 points in 41 games.

Malkin has been knocked off the scoresheet twice in 16 career home games against Columbus. Overall, he has points in 14 of his last 15 against the Blue Jackets.

New best for Letang

Letang set a new career high in points after his second-period goal.

Letang, 35, in his 16th NHL season, has 10 goals and 68 points. This bettered his previous career high in the 2015-16 season.

Letang scored 10 goals for the eighth time in his career, becoming the fifth active defenseman with more than eight seasons of 10 or more goals since 2006-07, his rookie season.

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