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Kunitz's return sparks Penguins past Stars

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The return of Chris Kunitz turned out to be just the spark the Pittsburgh Penguins' first line needed.

Kunitz scored one of the four goals generated by Pittsburgh's top line in a 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night. Sidney Crosby scored twice and Lee Stempniak also scored to help the Penguins bounce back after being swept by the Philadelphia Flyers in a home-and-home series last weekend.

"We weren't happy with those losses [to Philadelphia], we have to do better," Crosby said. "Wanted to make sure we went out there and played hard. It's a desperate team we're playing and hopefully we can build that same emotion, same intensity we had tonight and carry it over to the rest of the season."

Kunitz was cleared to play prior to the game after missing the Penguins' last two games with a lower-body injury. Forward James Neal also returned after missing two games with a concussion.

"[The first line] set the tone," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "They set the tone right from the start with their play and Sid kind of led the way in that regard … With Kunitz and Stempniak tonight, [they were] a force in the offensive zone. Hard to deal with, hard to play against."

Goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who started in place of Marc-Andre Fleury, made 32 saves, 15 in the third period.

The Penguins (45-19-4) remained five points behind the Boston Bruins, who defeated the New Jersey Devils 4-2 Tuesday, in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Stars (32-25-11), who remained two points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot, have lost their last two games by a combined score of 12-3.

Pittsburgh led 3-1 after two periods and made it a three-goal game at 1:56 of the third when Crosby picked up the ricochet of a point shot by Matt Niskanen and wristed it past Kari Lehtonen, who returned after missing three games with a concussion.

"I felt like I got a good start and made some good saves there right away," Lehtonen said. "After that, it was just one of those games where they had a few chances and they were able to put the puck in and I just have to be better and I think everybody else has to be better too."

Brandon Sutter put the game away by scoring on a shorthanded breakaway with 7:13 remaining.

Crosby had an assist to go along with his two goals and leads the NHL with 91 points.

Stempniak, the third member of the top line, took a pass from Kunitz and outbattled defenseman Jordie Benn before slipping a shot between Lehtonen's glove and left pad at 13:21 of the second for his first goal as a Penguin since being acquired from the Calgary Flames two weeks ago at the NHL Trade Deadline.

Dallas came inches from pulling within one goal when Vernon Fiddler tapped the puck past Zatkoff 1:36 later. But the puck stopped against the left post before fully crossing the goal line and the play was called dead before Zatkoff covered it.

"We had a couple real good opportunities in the second period," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "We missed the net. I thought the killer goal was the third one late in the period. We could've easily tied the game up."

Crosby and Kunitz scored in the first period to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead.

After being held scoreless in the two games against the Flyers, Crosby opened the scoring 4:17 into the first period. Craig Adams pressured Cody Eakin in the left corner of Dallas' zone, forcing a turnover. Adams tapped the puck to Crosby, who faked a shot and dragged the puck around Sergei Gonchar before backhanding a shot past an outstretched Lehtonen for a 1-0 lead.

The Penguins controlled the play during the first 12 minutes, outshooting the Stars 9-3. But Dallas center Tyler Seguin scored on his team's fourth shot of the period by tipping Trevor Daley's slapper behind Zatkoff at 12:30 to make it 1-1.

Seguin said the Stars didn't generate many chances after his goal.

"I didn't think we had that many quality shots on net," Seguin said. "It seemed like when we had a chance to take the momentum, we actually missed the net most of the time. So we had our chances. I thought there were times in the game where we were skating and competing well, but it wasn't for the full three periods tonight."

Pittsburgh went ahead to stay at 15:25 when Kunitz poked a rebound of a slap shot from Stempniak that bounced off Lehtonen's left pad into the back of the net.

"I think it's your job when you come back to the lineup to bring that energy," Kunitz said. "I think everyone did a great job. Our PK was great, blocking shots and [Zatkoff] made the big saves, but our forwards played with the puck in their end and kept them from playing with speed.

"Our team did a good job of taking that speed away from them early."

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