PITTSBURGH – During an 82-game season, there are games a contending team desperately needs to win -- and this was just one of those games for the Florida Panthers. They got one point but couldn't get two.
The Pittsburgh Penguins trailed after two periods, but that's becoming common for them even at home. So is the result.
Steve Sullivan tied it early in the third before James Neal and Evgeni Malkin found the net during a quick two-round shootout and the Penguins matched a season high by winning their eighth in a row, beating the Panthers 2-1 Friday night at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins are 8-16-2 when they trail after two periods, including wins in each of their last two games. They rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Wednesday night.
"That's big," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has won seven in a row himself. "Early in the season we weren't winning those games, but now we're finding a way to stay in and win those close games."
Pittsburgh is 20-4-1 since losing six straight, a turnaround that began when the Penguins won 4-1 at Florida on Jan. 13, starting them on another eight-game winning streak. The Penguins also have won 12 of 13 at home.
"Teams like Florida are playing playoff-like games, tight checking, not much out there," coach Dan Bylsma said. "But part of that (success) is the way we play (in the third period) and take over games."
The Penguins own an 87-62 scoring advantage in the third period, a testament to their depth and talent . Their 9-3 record in shootouts is a credit to Malkin and Neal, a pair of 30-goal scorers whose ability to find the net isn't limited to 60 minutes of game action.
The shootout lasted barely 90 seconds. Neal and Malkin each fired wrist shots past Jose Theodore – Neal on a drive, Malkin after slowing down in front of the net before putting a shot inside the near post. Neither Wojtek Wolski nor Mikael Samuelsson came close on shots against Fleury.
Neal is 4-for-9 in shootouts, while Malkin – rarely successful on such shots earlier in his career – is 8-for-11. And Malkin seems to have a different shot for every shootout.
"He has a couple of tricks up his sleeve," Theodore said. " He kind of slowed down and I knew he was going to shoot, I thought maybe he was going to go five-hole when I threw a poke check. But he beat me to the glove side."
With Theodore sweeping aside shots, adeptly controlling the puck and preventing rebounds, Florida appeared intent on redeeming itself for a 5-0 loss at Philadelphia on Thursday. Instead, the Panthers lost for the fifth time in six games -- a stretch in which they've been outscored 19-6 -- although they picked up a valuable point that assured they would remain on top in the Southeast Division. They entered the night leading Washington and Winnipeg by two points each.
"It was a hard-earned point," Dineen said.
Theodore, who came in with a 20-5-3 record against Pittsburgh but played on back-to-back nights for the first time this season, made 33 saves. Fleury made 28.
"Theo played outstanding. He held us in there," forward John Madden said of his goaltender. "We fought through a lot of stuff and did a lot of good things. I can't say we're happy with one point after having the lead, but in hindsight we'll take the point and move on."
Or as coach Kevin Dineen said, "Time for some home cooking." The Panthers play their next four at home, starting with Carolina on Sunday.
That day, the Penguins wind up a four-game homestand in which they haven't exactly dominated teams but are 3-0-0, helping them open up a four-point edge over fifth-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They also are within four points of the first-place Rangers, the team they play Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
But they'll probably need to play much better Sunday against Boston, which beat them 3-1 at Consol on Dec. 5. That was Sidney Crosby's last game before concussion-symptoms returned, and there is a chance he will return against the Bruins.
Florida, 0-7 in Pittsburgh since Jan. 3, 2009, took a 1-0 lead on Tomas Fleischmann's goal at 7:17 of the second. The Panthers had given up the first two goals in six of their previous seven games.
Wolski, filling in on the top line for the injured Kris Versteeg, shot the puck hard off the end boards and it deflected perfectly to Fleischmann at the right post for a tap-in that Fleury had no chance to prevent.
The Penguins tied it early in the third when Pascal Dupuis created a turnover near the blue line, setting up Jordan Staal's tape-to-tape pass to Sullivan, who beat Theodore with a backhander for his 14th goal.
"It was a great wall play by Duper and I was able to build up some speed, and Stallsy made me a great cross-ice pass that hit me right in stride," Sullivan said. "Then I got lucky on the goal."
Staal has seven goals and eight assists in 13 games since being out for five weeks with a knee injury. The Sullivan-Staal-Dupuis line has produced all four Pittsburgh goals in the last two games.
Shortly after that, the Penguins couldn't convert on a four-minute power play after Krystofer Barch's stick caught Craig Adams in the face. They are 0-for-15 on the power play since defenseman Kris Letang (concussion-like symptoms) was injured.
"There wasn't a lot of room out there – it was tough getting on the inside," Bylsma said. "It was playoff- type room out there."
Dupuis, coming off a three-point game against Toronto, thought he had put the Penguins ahead midway through the third. His bad-angle shot deflected off Theodore, who put his glove down and pushed the puck back just as it reached the goal line. But while the initial call was a goal, that ruling was overturned following a video review.
"I was pretty sure it wasn't a goal," Theodore said. "I knew it was close, but … I saw the puck pretty much all the way. I thought I had my arm and stick on the goal line."
The Penguins are 8-0-1 at home against the Southeast Division.
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