By ELI KABERON
(AP) — As Evgeni Malkin seemingly nears his return, the Pittsburgh Penguins are adding to their depth as they keep piling up victories.
With a comfortable lead in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins will look to continue their winning ways Sunday night when they travel to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Penguins (28-11-1) have built a 13-point cushion atop the division by winning 13 of 15, including the last six without Malkin due to a lower-body injury. The star center, among the NHL leaders in points (41) and assists (32), did skate with the team prior to its last game, a 4-3 overtime victory Friday night in Carolina.
Though Malkin’s status for this game remains unclear, Pittsburgh has seen some key players return to the ice. Deryk Engelland returned against the Hurricanes after serving a five-game suspension, scoring a third-period goal to help push the game into overtime. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who missed eight games because of a concussion, and forward Tanner Glass, out a month because of a broken hand, also were in uniform.
However, the game was the first Pittsburgh has played without top-line winger Pascal Dupuis, who could be out for the season due to an ACL injury.
Coach Dan Bylsma moved James Neal moved to the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, and he tied a season high with three points Friday. Neal scored the game-winning goal and added two assists, giving him 22 points in his last 14 games.
“I thought James has played real good with that line. They’re dangerous, created a lot of offense,” Bylsma said. “We are looking for opportunities to get him out there. Together, that line creates a lot of offense. Trying to get James on the ice, and one of them is with Sid and Chris.”
Crosby scored his team-leading 21st goal after having a 10-game point streak snapped in Monday’s 5-0 loss at Ottawa. The Penguins are 27-4-1 this season when he records a point.
The NHL points leader (55) has an eight-game point streak against the Blue Jackets, totaling four goals and nine assists as Pittsburgh has gone 7-0-1.
The Penguins have won all three meetings this season with Columbus and are 8-1-1 in the last 10.
The Blue Jackets (17-17-4) are on a nice roll themselves, winning three straight to match a season high. In their last game, Cam Atkinson scored the only goal of the shootout in a 2-1 win at New Jersey on Friday.
“We can’t be satisfied,” coach Todd Richards said. “We can’t come out of here thinking we’ve accomplished anything. There’s still a lot of games, and we still have a lot of work.”
The Blue Jackets are one of five teams separated by just a few points for third place in the Metropolitan. All of them are chasing the Penguins and Washington.
“Getting points in our division is crucial,” Atkinson said. “It seems like second place is seventh place. Every team is right there, so like I said, it’s crucial to get those two points. We can enjoy (the win against New Jersey), but we have the No. 1 team, with Pittsburgh coming into our building, so we have to be ready to go.”
One Blue Jackets player to come through in most division games this season is Brandon Dubinsky. He has 16 points in 15 games versus Metropolitan rivals, including an assist Friday, but doesn’t have one in three meetings with Pittsburgh.
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