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Pens top Panthers in fourth straight shootout win

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- Alex Kovalev and James Neal can't seem to score for the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation. In shootouts, they can't be stopped.

Kovalev and Neal put shots past backup goalie Scott Clemmensen and the Penguins won in a shootout for the third time in four days -- and the fourth time in a week -- by beating the sliding Florida Panthers 2-1 Sunday at Consol Energy Center.

The four consecutive shootout victories are the most by any team since the NHL went to the format at the start of the 2005-06 season.

Kovalev and Neal were acquired in deals close to the Feb. 28 trading deadline to give the Penguins some extra offense without the injured Sidney Crosby. They haven't produced so far, except when the clock isn't running.

Kovalev has a single goal in 14 games, but is 3-for-5 in shootouts with two game-winners. Neal has a lone goal in 15 games, but is 3-for-4 in shootouts with game-winners Monday at Detroit and Friday against New Jersey.

Pittsburgh is 9-3 in shootouts, with Kovalev and Neal figuring heavily in that success.

"It's a little weird  the way the games have been going. I don't think we're not used to scoring," Neal said. "We'd obviously like to put the puck in the net here ... But we've stuck with it and found a way to get the two points."

Marc-Andre Fleury, announced earlier in the day as the Penguins' MVP, turned aside 37 shots in 65 minutes before stopping Mike Santorelli and Niclas Bergfors in the shootout. A sliding Fleury left a side of the net open for Santorelli, only to adeptly poke-check the puck off his stick.

Clemmensen, who took over in overtime after Tomas Vokoun developed back spasms, stopped Kris Letang to begin the shootout. Following Fleury's big save on Santorelli, Kovalev switched from his backhand to his forehand to beat Clemmensen off the left post.

"He's infamous for his skill, his shootout ability, his (quick) hands," coach Dan Bylsma said. "What he's done in (the shootouts) is nothing short of spectacular."

Neal, who also set up Pittsburgh's only goal in regulation by Ben Lovejoy, finished off the Penguins' eighth extra-time game in their last 13 by putting a wrist shot past Clemmensen.

Vokoun's back began troubling him in the third period -- he apparently injured a ligament -- but he stayed in so Clemmensen would have time to warm up before overtime.

"I didn't want to put Clemmy in a position where he's in a 1-1 game late in the third period," Vokoun said. "At least he can stretch and, in case they score, (he) doesn't get a loss."

Instead, the Penguins got their sixth win in seven games and eighth in 10 games to move to within two points of Eastern Conference leader Philadelphia, which played Boston later Sunday. The Penguins and Flyers meet Tuesday at Consol.

"We set the goal to catch Philadelphia and get first in the conference and that is what we are doing right now," Kovalev said.

No matter how long it takes them, the Penguins keep winning without Crosby, who looked strong again Sunday while skating five hours before the game began. His return from a concussion sustained in early January remains uncertain.

Florida, out of playoff contention, has dropped five straight and six of seven.

Fleury's team-record shutout streak of 150 minutes, 14 seconds ended when Ryan Carter tipped in Alexander Sulzer's shot from the left point at 15:32 of the second period. Fleury's streak easily topped the record of 136:13 by Jocelyn Thibault.

While the Penguins hadn't scored in regulation since Tyler Kennedy's goal at 1:01 of the second Thursday in Philadelphia, they didn't take long to answer Carter's third of the season. Slightly more than two minutes later, with Lovejoy pinching on the play, Neal fed the puck from behind the net to the defenseman along the boards. Lovejoy momentarily couldn't control it, but got it back and lifted a tumbling shot that appeared to strike Vokoun in the shoulder.

It was Lovejoy's third of the season, and he couldn't help but smile as he traded fist bumps with his teammates.

"It might have been an out of body experience for Ben," Bylsma said. "Going short-side shelf isn't something anyone on the bench has seen. Maybe that's why he was smiling."

While the Penguins' scoring has dropped precipitously since Crosby was hurt -- they are averaging 2.2 goals per game, down from 3.2 with Crosby -- they are showing the kind of resiliency that could prove critical in the playoffs.

They are 13-1-5 in one-goal games without Crosby and are 9-2-2 overall in their last 13 games.
"With the exception of Fleury, I think it's been someone different every night," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Different guys contributing in different ways. Whether it's low-scoring or high-scoring, we're just
finding ways to win."

Orpik, chosen by his teammates for their Players' Player award as someone who displays leadership on and off the ice, returned  after sitting out 13 games with a broken right index finger. He also won the team's defensive player of the year award.

For the Panthers, it was a familiar story of not enough scoring. They have been held to two goals or fewer 42 times in 76 games; not surprisingly, they have won only four of those 42.

Carter's goal was only their third in four games. The Panthers are 0-2-1 against the Penguins this season and have dropped eight of their last nine in Pittsburgh.
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