Crosby’s hat trick lifts Penguins over Buffalo |
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His first 50-goal NHL season isn’t quite in the bag, but center Sidney Crosby skated several strides toward that elusive plateau on Monday night.

Crosby’s third hat trick, and the fifth of his five-year career, fueled a 5-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena. Crosby’s 37 goals are tied with San Jose center Patrick Marleau for the league lead.

“It always helps when Sid has a game like he did (last night),” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said after stopping 30 shots, including 20 of his final 22 faced. “That was huge.”

As was this victory for the Penguins, who improved to 2-6-0 against the Eastern Conference’s elite – Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo, the lone three clubs ahead of them in the standings.

The Penguins overcame a 3-1 deficit against a top defensive team and goalie Ryan Miller, a Vezina Trophy candidate and the likely starter for Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics later this month.

Center Jordan Staal’s 14th goal and two by Crosby within a minute and 25 seconds turned that deficit into a two-goal advantage late in the second period.

“We were concerned,” Staal said after snapping a 12-game goal drought. “We haven’t had one of those comeback wins in a while.”

The Penguins (35-21-1, 71 points) have won a bunch lately. They are on a 9-5-0 stretch – not an elite measure of excellence, as defenseman Brooks Orpik suggested, but good enough to climb within a point of New Jersey for the Atlantic Division lead.

The Devils have three games in-hand, and as Orpik noted the Penguins “can still play a lot better.”

Teammates cannot imagine better from Crosby, whom Orpik said has “never played this consistent” offensively.

A fanned one-timer and a gift turnover from poor puck-handling preceded Crosby’s pretty finish of a 2-on-1 with defenseman Kris Letang, which staked the Penguins a two-goal lead late in the second period.

That tally afforded a sellout crowd the chance to litter the ice with promotional giveaway black tote bags – creating a scene similar to Dec. 23, when the artificial surface was covered by black book bags after center Evgeni Malkin’s hat trick against Ottawa.

Former right wing Jaromir Jagr was the last Penguins player to score four goals in a game, against the New York Rangers on Oct. 14, 2000.

No Penguins player has scored at least 50 goals since Jagr posted 52 during the 2000-01 campaign, his last with the Penguins.

Crosby’s single-season best is 39 goals, which he hit a rookie four years ago. He is on pace for 54, but last night downplayed this latest turn.

“It was great plays by a lot of guys,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to bury them.”

Malkin was one of those guys making great plays. His two assists against Buffalo extended his points streak to eight games. He has posted six goals and eight assists over that span.

He and Crosby have scored or assisted on 21 of the Penguins’ past 22 goals.

The exception was a first-period goal by center Mark Letestu, his first in the NHL, only 47 seconds into the game last night.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Letestu said.

For Crosby, 50 goals might not be far off.

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