PITTSBURGH — James Neal saw the puck roll to the corner and sprinted to dig it out. The sight of hockey’s most intimidating player standing in his way hardly mattered.
The Pittsburgh Penguins forward shoved Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara — all 6-foot-9 of him — in the back then nudged the puck to teammate Evgeni Malkin. The NHL’s leading scorer fed Matt Niskanen at the point, and when Niskanen’s slap shot hit the back of the net the league’s hottest team was on its way to a 5-2 win.
“We wanted to get on (Chara) and be physical and affect him as much as possible,” Neal said. “We did a good job at that from the first shift on.”
Neal finished with three points — including his first goal since signing a $30-million contract extension last month — for the Penguins, who have won nine straight to keep the pressure on the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.
Chris Kunitz, Arron Asham, Pascal Dupuis and Niskanen also scored for Pittsburgh while Malkin had three assists to move into the NHL points lead with 84, two ahead of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.
Malkin also became the 17th Russian-born player to top 500 career points, though he was hardly concerned with the milestone.
“I not think about my points now,” Malkin said. “The season continues and playoffs come soon.”
And Pittsburgh’s postseason prospects appear to be improving by the day. The Penguins started the day four points behind the New York Rangers for the Atlantic Division lead and could get captain Sidney Crosby back by Thursday, when they start a pivotal three-game road trip at Madison Square Garden.
Crosby hasn’t played since concussion-like symptoms returned in early December but was cleared for contact last week and said on Saturday playing soon is a possibility.
Whenever he comes back, Crosby will join a team that’s starting to look like a Stanley Cup contender even without the former MVP’s talents. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 34 shots to run his personal winning streak to eight, as the Penguins jumped on the Bruins early.
David Krejci scored twice for Boston, but the Penguins chased Tim Thomas after the first period. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner stopped just seven of the 10 shots he faced before making way for Marty Turco.
“I think it was a good opportunity for Marty to go in,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “When you’re down by three goals against Pittsburgh, give the guy an opportunity. I wanted to see how he responded. Tim’s has played a lot lately. It was an opportunity to give him some rest.”
Something the defending Stanley Cup champions need.
Pittsburgh’s winning streak is the second-longest in the league this season behind a 10-game run the Bruins put together in November. The Bruins have been stuck in a holding pattern since that streak ended Nov. 23, unable to play with any kind of consistency.
They appeared to be ready to bust out of their funk last week with wins over Toronto and Buffalo, but the momentum evaporated in a span of 28 hours.
The Bruins let enigmatic Washington race to a quick two-goal lead and hold on for a 4-3 victory on Saturday afternoon in Boston before hopping on a plane to Pittsburgh to prep for a game that was moved up seven hours to accommodate national television.
The sluggishness showed during Pittsburgh’s dominant first period. The Penguins attacked from the opening faceoff, winning every important puck battle while slapping the Bruins around.
“We came out as physical as we have been in a long time,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “It had an effect early on. One of the things we were wanting to do is establish our offensive zone from a physicality standpoint.”
Asham’s fourth goal of the season came after one such victory, as Craig Adams dug the puck out of the corner then passed it to Ben Lovejoy at the point. Lovejoy’s slapshot was blocked, but Asham pounced on the rolling puck and beat Thomas with ease less than four minutes in.
Niskanen’s goal came in much the same fashion thanks to Neal and Malkin’s hard work in the corner against Chara. By the time Neal netted his 31st goal of the season on the power play with 1:18 left in the first the Penguins were in complete control.
“We were caught chasing a two-goal deficit before the game even started,” Boston forward Shawn Thornton said. “Really it wasn’t for lack of effort, just bad bounces … but for the last 40 minutes we played a solid game even with a short bench.”
By then, however, it was too late though Turco did his best to pick up his teammates. The 36-year-old veteran played in Austria this winter before the Bruins signed him last week to replace injured backup Tuukka Rask. Turco’s appearance was the first for Boston by a goaltender other than Thomas or Rask since Manny Fernandez took the ice for Boston in 2009.
Turco let in an early goal by Kunitz but was sharp otherwise, making a sprawling save on Jordan Staal a few minutes after entering, and the Bruins seemed to settle down.
“It was good to get in there,” Turco said. “Every minute I felt a little better and more comfortable.”
Boston closed with 4-2 midway through the second period on Krejci’s second goal but Fleury made sure the Bruins would get no closer and Dupuis’ 18th goal of the season late in the third period gave Pittsburgh extra breathing room.
NOTES: Boston D Adam McQuaid and forwards Max Sauve and Patrice Bergeron all left with injuries but Julien said they didn’t appear to be serious. … Pittsburgh’s winning streak is the franchise’s longest since 12 straight during the 2010-11 season … Staal assisted on Dupuis’ third-period goal to extend his points streak to a career-best seven games.