Buoyed by a sensational 37-save effort by Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins overcame another sluggish start to edge the Florida Panthers 2-1 in a shootout. The victory established a new NHL record with four consecutive shootout wins.
Although the Penguins earned two points to keep the heat on the Flyers, it was hardly an effort to write home about. Indeed, for much of the afternoon the Pens displayed as much fizz as a bottle of flat champagne. Taking full advantage, the Panthers dominated in puck possession, shots on goal (38-28) and faceoff wins (37-25). Still, the plucky Penguins found a way to prevail.
Following an uneventful 35 minutes of hockey, the Panthers drew first blood late in the second period on a nifty deflection by Ryan Carter, who tipped home an Alexander Sulzer blast from the point. The goal snapped Fleury’s club record 150:14 of shutout hockey.
Stung by the tally, the somnambulant Pens promptly sprang to life. Following a near-miss by Matt Niskanen, who rang a shot off the goal post, Alexei Kovalev dished a beautiful backhand pass to Ben Lovejoy below the right faceoff circle. Displaying soft hands and a deft touch, Lovejoy spun and ripped the puck under Tomas Vokoun’s arm to knot the score at 17:49.
The game began to open up in the final frame. Tyler Kennedy had two good scoring chances early in the period, but was denied by Vokoun. At the 11-minute mark Fleury stopped David Booth cold on a three-on-two break. When Booth drew a hooking penalty at 11:58, James Neal narrowly missed the go-ahead goal when he smacked yet another shot off the iron.
With the score tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, Panthers coach Peter DeBoer replaced an ailing Vokoun with backup Scott Clemmensen. The former Devils’ goalie came up big in overtime, stopping Jordan Staal from the left circle in the closing seconds.
Fortunately, the Pens continued their shootout mastery. While Clemmensen (saddled with an unsightly .471 career save percentage in shootouts) yielded goals to Penguins sharpshooters Kovalev and Neal, Fleury made a pair of spectacular saves on Mike Santorelli and Niclas Bergfors to seal the victory.
“He’s our MVP,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said, “and I think he deserves to be mentioned as the league MVP with his play this year.”
The Pens clinched their fifth consecutive playoff berth … The team is 13-1-5 in one-goal games without Sidney Crosby … Lovejoy’s goal was his third of the season (second against Florida) … Brooks Orpik returned after missing 13 games with a broken finger (Deryk Engelland was a healthy scratch) … Max Talbot left the game early in the second period with an apparent leg injury, but returned to skate a regular shift … Mark Letestu appears to be close to returning … Crosby continues to increase the intensity of his workouts.
The Penguins wrap up the season series with Philadelphia at the CONSOL Energy Center on Tuesday night. Heading into Sunday night’s action, the Pens trailed the Flyers by two points in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and colorful 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. A must have for any true Penguins fan.