The New York Islanders have given the Penguins fits all season. In the two most recent matchups between the teams, New York made dramatic third-period comebacks against Pittsburgh. On Nov. 27 they scored twice in the final frame to flip a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win. They overcame a 4-2 Penguins’ lead to tie the score, 4-4, on Jan. 19 before Evgeni Malkin
tallied twice in the final 9:51 to secure a 6-4 victory.
New York was threatening to make it three consecutive comebacks against the Penguins when Chris Kunitz
, playing in only his second game since missing 15 straight contests following abdominal surgery, scored his second goal of the night at the 14:48 mark of the third period on a breakaway to clinch a 3-1 decision for the Penguins.
“I thought they were big goals for us,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He has had a couple of those this year where he was on a breakaway and he has used that same type of move. Those were timely goals – getting a goal after the penalty kill and then getting one after they made is 2-1.”
Thanks to the hot hands of Kunitz, who also scored the Penguins’ first goal midway through the second period, Pittsburgh was able to grab a ‘W’ against the Islanders in the first contest of a three-game homestand leading into the Olympic break – which begins following the Penguins’ game against the Nashville Predators on Sunday.
“It feels nice the puck going in the net for you,” Kunitz said. “It feels good to get the win. The last game we put a lot of emotion into a game and lost into overtime. It’s nice to get the momentum going again.”
Pittsburgh’s win netted them two more points in the standings, giving them 74 on the season, one point behind the Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey Devils and two more than the Ottawa Senators, whom the Penguins are fighting for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff field.
“Obviously the (No.) 3, 4 and 5 (teams in the Eastern Conference) are all tied with the same points (before Wednesday’s games),” Kunitz said. “It’s closing up. There are only 25-some odd games left for everybody. It’s crunch time. We have to get a good push now and get everybody back and healthy following the Olympic break and push towards the playoffs. We need points every night to get us high in the standings.”
Neither team was able to get on the board until Kunitz and the Penguins rode the wave of momentum following a five-on-three penalty kill in the second period.
Seconds after Jordan Staal
stepped out of the penalty box, he found himself in a three-on-two with Evgeni Malkin
and Kunitz. Staal drove the net, while Malkin dropped a pass to Kunitz in the near circle. Malkin’s pass deflected off the stick of Mark Streit, which seemed to throw Dwayne Roloson off his angle, allowing Kunitz to fire a shot under his blocker.
“Staalsy made a great play by driving through (to the net) and Geno tried making a pass back but it hit a guy’s stick,” Kunitz said. “I just got enough of my stick on it to corral it and I might have caught (Roloson) off-guard by shooting it fairly quickly. It found its way under his blocker.”
Malkin re-directed a Sergei Gonchar shot past Roloson less than six minutes later, and Frans Nielsen backhanded a shot under Marc-Andre Fleury
9:38 into the third period to keep the game close, but Kunitz made sure to end that threat 5:10 minutes later.
Kunitz chipped the puck out of the Penguins zone, where Bill Guerin caught up to the biscuit in the neutral zone. Islanders defenseman Bruno Gervais fell down trying to defend the play, allowing Guerin to send Kunitz ahead on a breakaway.
Kunitz made a quick motion with his body, which opened the legs of Roloson, allowing the Penguins winger to slide a shot through his legs along the ice for his second goal of the night, and his first two-goal performance since March 15 of last season against the Boston Bruins.
“I was just trying to get up into the play and Billy made a great pass over the guy’s stick,” Kunitz said. “I was just trying to go in and make a move to see if the goalie would move. He opened his legs up a little so I just tried to slide the puck underneath them.”
“He has a little hitch there and then the five-hole move,” Bylsma said. “It’s not the first time we have seen it, but it’s a goal scorers’ patience. I don’t think you would have seen that from too many other guys.”
Even with his two-goal performance against the Islanders, Kunitz believes he still has work to do to get back to his pre-injury level.
“Some of the passes and some other things I am still trying to pick up the timing on,” he said. “I am still looking to get better and all that. It was nice to get the two goals and the win tonight.”