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Conner Comes Up Big In Win

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
SUNRISE, Florida – The smallest player on the Penguins’ roster came up with the biggest play of the night on Monday in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory against Florida at Bank Atlantic Center.

Forward Chris Conner, standing in at 5-foot-7, buried a nasty snap shot from the slot to beat Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun stick side to at 12:56 of the third period to lift the Penguins to the win.

“I was just trying to get it on net quickly,” Conner said. “It was a quick play toward the net. I was trying to make a play as quick as I can.”

The play was made by Mark Letestu, who used his speed to carry the puck down the near side, wheeled around a Florida defender and made a pretty pass right to the blade of Conner.

Conner took care of the rest.

“We had a good play up the middle by (Zbynek Michalek), and Mark made a good play to get around that defender and passing it out to me,” Conner said. “I was able to put it short side.”

“I had my head down and Conner was telling me I had time,” Letestu said. “He called for the puck in the slot. He made a good play to put it away.

“I was going to just get a puck to the net and see what happens. Then he hollered for it in the end. He was open. So hats off to him for making that call and burying the puck.”

A team’s chances of winning a game are always improved when it can win the special teams battle. The Penguins did just that, scoring two power-play goals while allowing none against the Panthers, and gutted out the victory.

“Our penalty kill had some huge kills and our power play started off like it did,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who teamed with defenseman Kris Letang to notch power-play tallies. “That’s big. We want to continue that. That’s usually the difference in the game. It certainly was.”

Pittsburgh scored two power-play goals in the first period against the NHL’s sixth-ranked PK unit. The Penguins finished the night with a 2-for-3 effort with the man-advantage.

The Penguins penalty killers shut out the Panthers in all five man-advantage chances. Pittsburgh, which entered the contest as the fourth-best PK unit in the NHL, came up with a critical kill of a penalty in the final four minutes of the third period.

“Coming in against a strong PK that pressures, we did a great job off the hop of executing,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We got the faceoff goal, and a second big power-play goal. We won the special teams battle. At the end we had to come up with a big kill. We had three or four guys with big shot blocks and our goaltender played strong, got the kill for us.”

The Penguins always want to finish a game even or better in the special teams numbers. Their plus-2 rating against Florida was what elevated the team.  

“It’s always important. When you’re a plus in that (category) you give yourself a good chance to win,” Crosby said. “That’s the difference in a win or loss.”

The Penguins had an up-and-down start of the 2009-10 season, but lately the team has been riding high.  

Pittsburgh’s win at Florida has the team running a six-game unbeaten streak at 5-0-1. What’s more important is that the Penguins have found a way to win some close games – four of the six contests have been decided by one goal.

“We’ve played solid, the way we should I think,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has started all six games of the Penguins unbeaten stretch. “I think it shows in the games.

“The start of the season was a little tough, but things are looking up. We just have to stay positive. It’s been going good for a couple of games now.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Orr (far left) chats with Henry Staal (center) and Eddie Johnston during the Penguins' fifth annual "Dad's Trip".
The Penguins managed to make their one-goal lead stand in the final minutes of the third period, a better result than last game when Carolina tied the contest in the final minute Friday night. The Penguins eventually won that contest in the shootout. There was no need for extra time against Florida.

“We’ve had to buckle down at certain times and have been tested this way,” Bylsma said. “Last game we gave up a goal with 6-on-5. (On Monday) we had to kill a penalty with four minutes left. You could see our guys, the way we played, we didn’t feel like the puck was going to go in the net tonight. We talked about this on the bench, these are the types of games we want to be in – tied going into the third. I thought our guys played a strong third.”

The Penguins are conducting their fifth annual “Dads Trip.” Pittsburgh started it off on a good note with their win at Florida.

“It’s fun to be with our dads,” said Fleury, whose father Andre has been on all five trips. “They don’t get to see us much. It’s good to get a win, get two points and make them happy.”

Last year the Penguins swept the Dads Trip with wins at Philadelphia (2-1; Jan. 24) and New York Rangers (4-2; Jan. 25).  

Pittsburgh is 6-3 all-time on the Dads Trip since general manager Ray Shero brought the tradition to the Penguins. They are 3-0 with Bylsma as head coach.

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