No Evgeni Malkin and later, no Pascal Dupuis against what coach Dan Bylsma called “the best team in the league right now” this morning? No problem.
Despite missing the NHL's second-leading scorer in Malkin going into the game and losing a top-six winger in Dupuis early in the second period, the Penguins exploded for five goals against an elite Sharks team to bury them 5-1 on Thursday at CONSOL Energy Center to snap San Jose's winning streak at six games and extend their own to five – a new season-high for the Pens.
Chris Kunitz scored twice for the Pens with Dupuis, Jayson Megna and Kris Letang recording the other goals. Sidney Crosby collected three assists in his 500th career game to extend his lead in the NHL scoring race to four points over Malkin, who is currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Penguins oach Dan Bylsma had no update on Dupuis after the game, except that he also has a lower-body injury and needs further evaluation.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was spectacular for the Penguins, finishing with a season-high 44 saves on 45 shots. He came up with all of the big stops his team needed as the Sharks swarmed looking for blood and if he hadn't, the score could have been a lot different. But Fleury did his part, guys stepped up and contributed in bigger roles with 71 and 9 out and the total group effort resulted in a big win.
“We were definitely motivated knowing this was a good team,” Crosby said.
“We knew that they had a lot of depth and that we were going to be tested. To not have ‘Geno’ tonight and then have ‘Duper’ leave the game, I think every guy had to step up and we did a good job.”FOUR-GOAL SECOND
The two teams played a quick, relatively uneventful first period. Which is fine with the Pens, as improving their start was a focus after the way they came out in their last game on Tuesday against the Islanders. In that game, they got down 2-0 after 20 with a number of turnovers and sloppy puck management, which forced them to claw back for an eventual 3-2 overtime win.
That solid first allowed the Pens to break the game open in the second, with four goals in the first 7:30 of play. The biggest takeaways from that offensive explosion were the players who stepped up to score and how opportunistic the Pens were, taking miles from the inches the Sharks were giving them.
While Dupuis has been as defensively reliable as ever and an integral part of the Pens’ penalty kill, he hasn’t been scoring at the pace he’s proven capable of this season. But he broke through for a big tip-in goal to start off Pittsburgh’s run.
Then the rookie Megna, getting a chance on the second line with Jussi Jokinen and James Neal after being scratched in the last game, sniped one past Niemi for his third goal in his 10th NHL game with Pittsburgh. Kunitz followed that up with his third two-goal performance to give him a team-leading 16 on the season.
“I think we just stuck to our systems, I think we just kept it simple,” Megna said of the Pens’ big second. “We got pucks behind the defensemen and we stuck to our game plan and put pucks at the net. We had a couple good screens and a couple good deflections. When you make it hard on their goalie and put traffic in front of the net, fortunately enough a couple pucks went in tonight for us.”FLEURY WEATHERS FLURRIES
The Pens may have finished the first 40 minutes with a 4-1 lead, but that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the play of Marc-Andre Fleury.
The score doesn’t reflect how even the game was. After every Penguins goal, the Sharks would respond by storming the crease and creating a ton of great chances. But Fleury weathered every wave to keep San Jose from getting any momentum and back into the game.
The Sharks have been dominating teams all season with that ability to grind their opponents down low and use their size to be effective around the net. Fleury had to deal with all of that on Thursday as they came hard at the Penguins netminder. But Fleury used his tremendous athleticism to make the big saves and keep the puck from crossing the goal line despite the crowding of his crease and all of the traffic he had to deal with in the blue paint.
“We knew they throw a lot of pucks on net with bodies going there, tips, rebounds,” Fleury said, who praised his teammates for their work in the zone clearing loose pucks and Sharks down low. “Our D did a great job defending. Forwards blocking shots and helping out.”
Fleury faced 23 shots in the second period alone and stopped all but one, a goal that was credited to Tomas Hertl but actually deflected off Pens defenseman Deryk Engelland’s stick and through Fleury’s pads. It’s certainly tough for a goalie to see a potential blanking vanish on a sequence like that, and while Fleury said it would have been nice to get the shutout, he's "happy with the win.”
Fleury finished with a season-high 44 saves on 45 shots and was especially terrific on the penalty kill, making a number of spectacular saves to keep the Pens a perfect 3-for-3 in shorthanded situations.
"The period was as scripted," Bylsma said. "They did what they do well. They're a good team, they do it throughout their lineup. They're a team that does a really good job of getting pucks there and bodies there and they did that with the power plays they had, they did that repeatedly putting pucks in the crease and whacking, getting second chances. I think they had seven shots on their power play. That added to that 24 total. So we had to be strong around the net. Marc-Andre Fleury had to come up big with pucks there in and around his feet."
The Sharks certainly made Fleury work for this win, but he said he doesn’t mind facing a high volume of shots like that – “when they don’t go in, yeah.”
“I think it's easier mentally. It's probably easier to focus,” he smiled.
“It was good. It was fun. It doesn't happen too often. We still got five goals for so that was big.”KUNITZ CONTINUES HIS DOMINANCE
Kunitz moved ahead of linemate Crosby for the team lead in goals after tallying twice in a span of 2:03 in the second period.
Crosby and Neal assisted on both Kunitz goals, the first at even strength and the second on the power play. The power play went 1-for-3 on the night and continues to roll along, even without the services of Malkin, the NHL 'Second Star' for the month of November. The 26 percent success rate with the man-advantage leads the league.
"We were opportunistic," Kunitz said on the ice tilting in favor of the Penguins in the second period. "We got pucks to the net and guys found ways to put the puck in. The power play goes out and score a few seconds in and the momentum really shifted."
Kunitz's power-play goal gave the Penguins a four-goal lead midway through the second period, a cushion wide enough to hold off the red-hot Sharks.
"They are a really good team," Kunitz said. "A great confidence booster for our team to go out and maybe get outshot but still win some games."NOTES
* With Malkin out, the Pens were forced to adjust their lines going into the game. Megna moved up to play left wing next to Jussi Jokinen, who moved over to assume Malkin’s center position next to James Neal. The first line of Kunitz, Crosby and Dupuis and the third line of Chris Conner, Brandon Sutter and Andrew Ebbett remained intact to start, while Chuck Kobasew returned to the lineup after missing the last 17 games with a lower-body injury and skated on the fourth line with Craig Adams and Joe Vitale.
“No one is going to replace Geno,” Megna said. “We have guys that fill in, step up. If we stick to our system we don't complain.”
But all of that changed after the Pens lost Dupuis in the second period. After Dupuis opened the scoring just 27 seconds into the frame, the first of four unanswered goals, he recorded just one more shift before heading down the runway into the locker room. He did not return. Vitale moved up to play the wing next to Crosby and Kunitz, as he has the speed to match Dupuis.
* The Pens dominated the special teams battle in this game. Not only did they convert one of their two chances on the man-advantage, but the penalty killers managed to keep the Sharks from scoring on any of their three power-play opportunities. Which is no small feat considering the size, skill and scoring ability they put on the ice in those situations, and the Pens were short a penalty killer after Dupuis left. Obviously Fleury deserves a lot of the credit, but so does Adams – who was out for 4:16 of the six total shorthanded minutes and had three big blocks – Brandon Sutter, Brooks Orpik and Letang, who also logged a lot of time there.
* Megna's goal was gorgeous (watch it here
), beating Antti Niemi short side high. This is how he described it...
"Simon Despres made a nice play up the wall, poked it by the guy. The puck was kind of rolling on the three-on-one. I was thinking pass first, but I couldn't get it to stay flat until I was in the circles. I decided to shoot and saw a little space and it got under the arm. I know I need to shoot more of those but I was looking to pass first."
Megna, called up for the second time this season on Nov. 27, played excellent in this game. He played three in a row before getting scratched Tuesday against the Islanders, so his performance today – displaying some chemistry with Jokinen and Neal and a willingness to go to the dirty area and scoring a big goal which ended up being the game-winner – is "a confidence booster, to be able to contribute to a team like this, especially against a team like San Jose.