But a frustrating first two periods led to a breakout third and a shootout victory.
Letang scored the deciding goal in the shootout, and the Penguins beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 on Thursday night.
''When the game got a little nasty at the end of the second period, I thought it brought a lot of juice to our bench, especially our top guys in particular,'' Sullivan said.
Frustration boiled over for the Penguins' stars in the final minute of the second period.
Pittsburgh trailed 1-0 when Malkin was given five minutes for fighting Nick Foligno and Crosby got a roughing double minor against Seth Jones. Letang was also given a roughing minor and Columbus' Boone Jenner received a game misconduct for cross-checking.
Pittsburgh scored twice in the third period and Letang ended it in the fourth round of the shootout, beating Sergei Bobrovsky to the glove side after a series of dekes.
''(Crosby) told me that (Bobrovsky) was really patient, so I threw a couple moves at him, and he didn't move,'' Letang said. ''I knew if I kept dragging the puck further, he would be deeper, so I would have the shot.''
Cam Atkinson scored in the shootout for Columbus, but Matt Murray stopped Artemi Panarin, Jack Johnson and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Murray made 29 saves, while Bobrovsky stopped 39 shots. Malkin also scored for Pittsburgh in the shootout.
Patric Hornqvist and Malkin both scored their 12th goals of the season on the power play for the Penguins, who have two wins in their last three games following a three-game losing streak. Pittsburgh scored twice on the power play after a 0-for-15 slump.
Panarin and Pierre-Luc Dubois had a goal and an assist apiece for Columbus. Panarin has 14 points in his last 11 games and Dubois has 12 points in his last 13 games for the Blue Jackets, who have lost four of their last six. Columbus defeated Toronto a night earlier, but lost three of their previous four and allowed 20 goals during that span.
''I think it's just two teams with a lot of history,'' Foligno said of the Penguins and Blue Jackets. ''Emotions are going to run wild. It's a game we both really wanted, and that's what happens.''
Hornqvist tied it at 1-1 for Pittsburgh at 2:25 of the third period when he tipped a shot by Phil Kessel underneath Bobrovsky. Hornqvist played after missing Monday's game against Colorado with an upper-body injury. Kessel has points in nine straight home games and 27 of 36 games played this season for Pittsburgh.
Malkin briefly put Pittsburgh in front with a power-play goal. Bobrovsky made a blocker save on Crosby, but Malkin backhanded the rebound out of the air and into the net.
Columbus evened the score with a power-play goal just over a minute later, as Panarin scored with a wrist shot from the point.
''Whether it was 2-1 or 3-1, it doesn't matter, we were going to push until we tied the game,'' Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson said.
It was the first time the teams had played since Pittsburgh won a first-round playoff series in the spring. The teams have met in the first round of the playoffs two of the last four years, with Pittsburgh winning both times.
The emotion carried over and worked in Pittsburgh's favor on this night.
''They're competitive guys and it was a competitive game,'' Sullivan said. ''It was a hard-fought game and sometimes emotions run high. The energy and emotion of the game ... that's as good as it's been this year for us, and I think that's when we play our best.''
NOTES: Columbus is entering a stretch where it will play five of its next seven against Metropolitan Division opponents. Pittsburgh will play six of their next eight within the division. Entering Thursday night, just 10 points separated first and eighth place in the Metropolitan. ... Newly-acquired Jamie Oleksiak made his Penguins debut on his 25th birthday. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound defenseman, selected No. 14 overall in the 2011 draft, was acquired from the Dallas Stars in a trade on Tuesday. ... Penguins D Matt Hunwick played in his 500th NHL game. ... Blue Jackets D Zach Werenski missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury. ... Pittsburgh scratched D Ian Cole and F Tom Kuhnhackl.
Blue Jackets: Host Philadelphia on Saturday.
Penguins: Continue a three-game homestand Saturday against Anaheim.
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