The Penguins and Senators entered their Wednesday game tied with 16 points in the standings, and Pittsburgh came away with the two-point edge over Ottawa by pulling out a big 4-2 win at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins recovered from a pair of Senators goals 24 seconds apart in the second period that gave Ottawa a 2-1 lead and withstood sieges from their opponent to get the victory.
James Neal scored twice and added an assist, Sidney Crosby had a goal and two assists (notching his 400th career NHL assist on the second one) and Paul Martin had two helpers for Pittsburgh. Pascal Dupuis rounded out the scoring for the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 28 saves.
Stephane da Costa and James O’Brien scored for the Senators. Craig Anderson allowed a season-high four goals on 30 shots.
Elite scorers are deft at reading the plays in front of them and just know the right areas to be in at the right time on the ice. Then when they get the puck, they're able to put it in the back of the net. James Neal certainly displayed that vision, awareness and finishing ability on Wednesday night, scoring both the game-tying and game-winning goal to propel Pittsburgh past Ottawa, 4-2.
"If you're going to make a book on a shooter and a guy getting open, just watch this guy play the game, both five-on-five and on the power play," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "He moves to get open."
That's Neal's mentality every time he steps on the ice.
“For me it’s just to try to find open ice, get in spots where I can shoot the puck," Neal said. "When you’re playing with guys like (Evgeni Malkin), (Sidney Crosby) and (Chris Kunitz), who does a heck of a job in front, as well as (Paul Martin), who has been great on the backend for us with (Kris Letang) going down, with guys keying on them a little bit more I’m just trying to find open ice. They give me some great passes and if it wasn’t for them it wouldn’t be that easy.”
The Penguins winger got his NHL-leading sixth power-play goal of the year to tie the game at 2-2 with 6:13 left in the second period, a few minutes after the Senators took a 2-1 lead.
Paul Martin helped create space for Neal by choosing to drive low into the zone instead of looking for an outlet pass. Martin then dropped it over to Crosby on the wall, who hit an open Neal on the hashmarks with a pass. Neal promptly whipped the puck past Senators goalie Craig Anderson to get his team back in the game versus a strong Ottawa defense.
Then 1:52 into the third period, Neal found himself wide open on the side of the net when a rebound from a Deryk Engelland point shot popped right to him. Neal put it in the yawning cage to put the Penguins up 3-2.
"He can get his shot off real quick," Bylsma said. "He finds those spots. He's great at drifting into those spots. He's a guy that moves into those areas while these other players are doing their things. He doesn't stand in one spot and make someone pass him the puck. He shifts into soft areas and finds it. If you look at his game and his goals he repeatedly finds that spot while the other guys are doing the work. The release is an elite release when he gets that opportunity."
COOKE MOVES UP
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma moved Matt Cooke up to the second line with Neal and Evgeni Malkin and put Zach Boychuk on the third line with Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy. Cooke did a fantastic job playing alongside Malkin and Neal.
Cooke was instrumental on Neal’s second goal when he screened Anderson so Engelland’s shot could get through, allowing Neal to grab the rebound and put it in. Cooke was awarded with an assist on the play.
"It might have been Matt's best game 5-on-5 of the year to this point," Bylsma said. "Matt has played with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the past for periods of time. Matt doesn't really need to change his game to play up there. He forechecks and we saw that in the game. He goes to the net and we saw that in the game. He's responsible on the defensive side of the puck as well and we saw that in the game when he got moved there. Got the opportunity to play there and he did a good job in those areas."
LETANG, NISKANEN RETURN
Letang and Matt Niskanen returned to the Penguins blue line Wednesday and skated as defense partners after being activated off Injured Reserve a few hours before game time.
Letang, who had missed the last three games with a lower-body injury, played a game-high 27:33 minutes in the contest.
“I felt pretty good," he said. "It was my main goal to come back 100 percent.”
Niskanen, who missed the last seven games also with a lower-body injury, finished with 21:19 minutes.
Niskanen admitted to some rust, saying “For the most part I felt pretty good. The timing was there and then there were a few occasions where I felt a step slow. I just am getting back in the swing of things and it’ll come. I just got to get back. I’ve been out for two weeks, two and a half weeks, so hopefully I have all those little bumps out of the way.”
Last year’s Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson suffered a scary injury with 18.7 seconds left in the second period.
As Matt Cooke went to finish a hit on Karlsson in the corner of the Senators zone, it looked like Cooke’s skate blade caught Karlsson on the back of his left leg. A visibly distressed Karlsson couldn’t put any weight on it and had to be helped off the ice by trainers.
Karlsson did not return to the game. The Senators wrote on Twitter from their official handle, @NHL_Sens, “Update on Karlsson: Erik suffered a laceration to his left achilles, which will require surgery to repair. He will be out indefinitely.”
Author: Michelle Crechiolo