James Neal scored three goals in his first game back from a concussion and the Pittsburgh Penguins snapped a two-game skid with an 8-3 victory over Jordan Staal and the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.
Evgeni Malkin had a goal and two assists for the Penguins, who had three third-period goals in 5:24 to turn a tie game into a rout. Brenden Morrow and former Hurricane Jussi Jokinen - both acquired at the trade deadline - also scored.
Kevin Westgarth recorded his first two goals of the season, and Tuomo Ruutu also scored for the Hurricanes, who will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight time.
Staal, who spent six seasons with the Penguins, had an assist and just missed on a partial breakaway in his first game in Pittsburgh since he was traded to Carolina in June.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 26 shots for his 23rd win. He also had an assist for the second straight game, and Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis scored late third-period goals for the Penguins.
Justin Peters allowed five goals in the third period after surrendering three in the first two periods.
Pittsburgh led 3-1 in the second, but Carolina rallied into a tie in a span of 37 seconds. Jamie McBain thought he had the go-ahead goal 45 seconds into the third, but it was waived off and Jared Staal was whistled for interference with Fleury.
Neal scored his second power-play goal on the ensuing man advantage and capped the hat trick with his 21st just 2:38 later, both on feeds from Malkin.
Morrow added his 12th a little more than a minute later on a one-timer from Brandon Sutter, the key piece for Pittsburgh in the deal for Jordan Staal.
Pittsburgh improved to 23-4 in its last 27 games and enters the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and overwhelming favorite in the Eastern Conference. A scheduling conflict at Consol Energy Center means the Penguins likely won’t open the playoffs until Wednesday against the Ottawa Senators or New York Islanders.
The Penguins nabbed the top seed in the East as newcomers Morrow, Jokinen and Jarome Iginla - all acquired at the trade deadline - helped Pittsburgh win eight of 12 games played without captain Sidney Crosby, who has been out since March 30 with a broken jaw.
Crosby is waiting to be cleared for game action by doctors, but the captain participated in his first practice in nearly a month recently, taking part in non-contact drills, while adjusting to a new shield to protect his injured jaw.
Crosby’s status for next week’s playoff opener remains unclear, but barring a setback, he is almost certain to play in the opening round.
The Penguins, coming off back-to-back losses against Buffalo and New Jersey, appear to be getting healthy at the right time. Malkin played in his second game after missing four with an upper body injury. Neal missed eight games with a concussion, while defenseman Paul Martin also played in his first game after being sidelined with a broken bone in his left hand.
Jordan Staal, who played a crucial role in the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run, turned down a contract extension from Pittsburgh, and instead inked a similar deal with Carolina following a stunning blockbuster trade on draft night that sent the No. 2 overall pick in 2006 to the Hurricanes.
The Penguins recognized Staal with a first-period video tribute, and he responded, drawing a standing ovation from the 18,658 in attendance.
NOTES: The Penguins, with 261 goals, led the league in scoring in back-to-back years for the first time since 1995-96 and ’96-97. ... The Penguins have won five straight regular-season finales. ... Pittsburgh is 8-3 in its last 11 games against Carolina, winning five straight at home ... Hurricanes F Alexander Semin missed the game with a concussion. ... Pittsburgh is 24-2-1 over its last 27 home games against Southeast Division teams, including a current 18-game unbeaten stretch.