It’s a darn shame the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks meet only once a year. Games between the two clubs invariably feature superb skill play, gut-wrenching momentum swings, and the riveting intensity of a Stanley Cup Finals matchup.
Tuesday night’s contest at the CONSOL Energy Center was no exception. Playing arguably their finest 40 minutes of the season, the Penguins stormed to a three-goal lead and withstood a furious Chicago rally to emerge with a pulsating 3-2 victory.
The high-flying Hawks entered the game on a roll. Boasting an NHL-best 46 points, the Windy City sextet had won five games in a row and nine out of 11.
However, the home-standing Penguins proved more than ready. Deryk Engelland set the tone for a hard-charging, fast-paced affair when he nailed Chicago rookie Marcus Kruger with a thunderous check at the nine-minute mark. Hawks heavyweight John Scott flew in to challenge the rugged Pens defender, but drew an instigator penalty in the process. On the ensuing power play Chris Kunitz cruised down the slot and buried the puck behind Chicago goalie Ray Emery to stake the Pens to an early lead.
The black and gold continued to carry the play in the second period. At 2:45 Evgeni Malkin picked up a short feed from Matt Niskanen and relayed the puck to James Neal. Using Kunitz as a decoy, the big winger blasted the puck past Emery off the far post for his 19th goal of the season.
Late in the frame the Pens upped their lead to 3-0, thanks to a breathtaking effort by Ben Lovejoy. In a move reminiscent of the great Bobby Orr, the fleet Pens defender hurtled into the Chicago zone at warp speed, circled the net, and fed a crisp pass to an onrushing Tyler Kennedy. The “Little Tiger” rifled the puck past a helpless Emery for his first tally in 10 games.
Entering the final period with a three-goal edge, the Pens appeared to have the game well in hand. However, the visitors weren’t going down without a fight. Just 49 seconds in Chicago captain Jonathan Toews cut the Pens’ lead to two when his cross-crease feed deflected in off Niskanen.
Suitably inspired, the Hawks proceeded to dominate the Pens over the final 20 minutes, piling up a whopping 19-4 advantage on the shot clock. Viktor Stalberg finished off a dazzling tape-to-tape passing sequence at 6:12 to narrow the gap to one. Chicago poured into the Pittsburgh zone in waves, reducing their bewildered hosts to a collection of black-and-gold pylons.
Fortunately, Marc-Andre Fleury stepped forward to literally save the day. Displaying his trademark athleticism, “Flower” made a series of highlight-reel stops to hold the Hawks at bay. With 2.5 seconds to play, he coolly squeezed Andrew Brunette’s shot from the left corner against the post to thwart Chicago’s last-gasp attempt.
“Fleury was very good in the third period,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma noted. “And [he] needed to be.”
Malkin earned the No. 1 star with a three-assist effort … Geno is tied for the league lead in points (39) … Fleury (36 saves) was named No. 2 star … Lovejoy (an assist and a plus-1) played his first game since Nov. 3 … Jordan Staal returned to action after sitting out two games … Chicago out-shot the Pens 38-28 … Carl Sneep and Brian Strait were returned to Wilkes-Barre … Robert Bortuzzo, Sidney Crosby, Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, Steve MacIntyre, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Richard Park, and Eric Tangradi were scratches.
The Penguins (19-11-4) faceoff with the improving Winnipeg Jets (15-13-5) Friday night at the MTS Centre. The Jets beat the Pens 2-1 in Manitoba on October 17.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.