Sidney Crosby was a clear winner in a battle between the NHL's top two scorers.
The Islanders led 2-0 before the game was eight-and-a-half minutes old. But that's when Crosby took over, setting up a goal by Chris Kunitz and scoring one himself to get the Penguins even before the first intermission, then setting up a power-play goal by Kris Letang late in the second period after rookie Olli Maatta had put the Penguins ahead 5:35 into the middle period.
Crosby has 25 goals and 83 points in 45 regular-season games against the Islanders, the most he's had against any team.
Count Islanders coach Jack Capuano among those impressed by Crosby.
"You watch 87 out there -- he was chipping pucks and going after them, he wasn't overhandling the puck and he's the best player in the world," he said. "Not everybody had a good night for us."
Capuano might have been referring to his top line. New York captain John Tavares, who entered the game with 62 points, seven behind Crosby in the League scoring race, had an assist on Kyle Okposo's third-period goal. But he and linemates Okposo and Thomas Vanek, who entered the night as the NHL's hottest trio, struggled to generate offense for most of the night.
Kunitz also had two assists for the Penguins (36-13-2), who are 15-3-1 in their past 19 games. He and Crosby were on the ice for all four Pittsburgh goals in the first two periods.
Backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff survived New York's early blitz and finished with 30 saves. He is 8-0-1 in his past nine decisions.
"It wasn't the prettiest game for your numbers, but it's a hard-fought game," Zatkoff said. "That's the kind of game you're going to be in against the Islanders."
Kevin Poulin made 23 saves for the Islanders (21-25-7), who lost for the League-high eighth time this season after leading by two or more goals, including both of the Penguins' visits to Long Island.
"We scored enough to win," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "That team really pressures you and they know how to score. We did enough battle at the end to hold on."
Each team scored two goals on nine shots in a first period that saw them take turns dominating play.
The Islanders came out with lots of jump and needed only 1:39 after the opening faceoff to grab the lead. Thomas Hickey kept the puck in at the left point and flung it toward the net. Michael Grabner picked up the bouncing puck to the left of the slot and whipped it past Zatkoff. It was Grabner's eighth goal of the season but his first at the Coliseum.
New York made it 2-0 at 8:21. Cal Clutterbuck bumped Penguins defenseman Paul Martin off the puck at the red line between the benches, and Grabner picked it up to start a 2-on-1 break. He carried into the Pittsburgh zone and dropped to Brock Nelson, who zipped a shot between Zatkoff and the left post for his ninth of the season.
But the Islanders have had trouble all season holding on to two-goal leads, and Nelson's goal appeared to wake up the Penguins, who needed only 71 seconds to cut the deficit in half. Crosby outfought two Islanders to control a dump-in behind the net and found Kunitz for a one-timer from the left circle for his 25th of the season.
The Penguins continued to press and tied it at 11:24 when Crosby deflected home a pass from Kunitz for his 27th of the season.
Pittsburgh did not allow a shot on goal while killing off a cross-checking penalty to Maatta early in the second period. The rookie defenseman then made amends for his infraction by scoring his fifth goal of the season at 5:35. Maatta started the play with a breakout pass and ended it by taking a feed from Kunitz, weaving through the defense, and sliding a backhander from the slot past Poulin to give the Penguins their first lead of the game.
The Penguins' League-leading power play burned the NHL's 30th-ranked penalty-killing unit to make it 4-2 at 17:44. Pittsburgh kept control of the puck after Matt Martin's hooking penalty at 16:16, not allowing New York to clear the zone, before Crosby's pass across the zone found Letang in the lower left circle for a one-timer that beat Poulin easily for his 10th of the season.
"We came out really well and then we didn't play well until the last 12 minutes of the game," Tavares said. "They played a good road game, and they did a lot of the little things and executed better than us for most of the game."
Josh Bailey gave the Islanders a spark when he scored on a breakaway 3:10 into the third period. It was his first goal in 38 games since Oct. 25, when he also scored against the Penguins. But Evgeni Malkin converted a pass from James Neal at 5:59 after a New York turnover to restore Pittsburgh's two-goal margin.
"You can't give Kunitz, Crosby, Malkin, [James] Neal and [Kris] Letang - the list goes on - time and space because they are going to make plays," Capuano said. "They are a high-powered team."
Okposo jammed home a loose puck in the crease with 9:05 remaining to cut the deficit back to one, and Tavares drew back-to-back penalties on Letang and Tanner Glass, giving the Islanders a 5-on-3 power play for 50 seconds. But Zatkoff made five saves during the 3:10 of power-play time, including a game-saver on Frans Nielsen during the two-man advantage, to preserve the lead.
"We had a couple of great looks," Tavares said. "When you get those chances, you have to put them in."
Brandon Sutter hit the empty net with 3.1 seconds left for the final margin.
"We knew what we had to do," said Sutter, one of the three penalty-killers during the 5-on-3. "Lately, we've done a good job killing penalties. Getting that in the last few minutes was a confidence booster."
Material from team media was used in this report.