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Associated Press
Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, right, and Columbus’ James Wisniewski chase a loose puck during the first period. The Penguins eliminated the Blue Jackets from the playoffs with a 4-3 win.
NHL playoffs

Penguins KO Blue Jackets

– Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins finally flexed their offensive muscles.

And they needed every bit of scoring they could muster.

Malkin had a hat trick and the Penguins almost blew a four-goal lead before holding off the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 on Monday night to clinch their first-round playoff series in six games.

“It’s more important that we win the game and (end) the series,” Malkin said of the 10th time he’s scored three times in a game in his career.

“Going into the second round now, you feel so much better when you have confidence. I hope in the next round I can score more.”

Pittsburgh awaits the winner of the New York-Philadelphia series, with the Rangers leading 3-2 going into Tuesday night’s Game 6.

It’s a good thing for the Penguins that Malkin – scoreless in his past nine playoff games including the first five in the series – finally found the net.

The Blue Jackets, closer to making tee times than thinking about a Game 7, scored three times in a 4:52 span in the third period to turn up the pressure on the Penguins, an overwhelming favorite before the series got underway.

“We’re a proud group in here,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said. “We didn’t want to get embarrassed on home ice. If it was going to be our last game of the season, we didn’t want to have any quit. We didn’t have any quit in this locker room all season. We just kept pushing and pushing.”

Brandon Sutter also scored before leaving with an injury and Matt Niskanen had two assists as the Penguins became the first team in the series to score first and win – but barely. Marc-Andre Fleury made 24 saves and made a couple of big stops after the game turned into a squeaker.

“It was a good test,” he said of the wild last few minutes.

WILD 5, AVALANCHE 2: In St. Paul, Minn., Zach Parise scored early and late on tipped shots, and Minnesota tacked on two empty-net goals to send the first-round playoff series to a decisive Game 7.

Parise and Mikko Koivu each had two assists.

The teams will meet again in Denver on Wednesday night, with the winner taking on the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals.

Parise scored just 49 seconds into the game, and Mikael Granlund made it 2-0 later in the first period, but a costly turnover by Ryan Suter at the end of a failed 5-on-3 situation led to a game-changing short-handed goal for the Avalanche when Paul Stastny scored for the fourth time in the series.

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