Buoyed by Brent Johnson’s 28-save performance and timely goals from Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis, Zbynek Michalek, and Craig Adams, the Penguins rallied from a 2-1 deficit to defeat the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center. The victory snapped a two-game losing streak and pulled the never-say-die Pens to within two points of division-leading Philadelphia heading into Sunday’s action.
Concerned over the team’s recent offensive woes (six regulation goals in the previous five games), coach Dan Bylsma encouraged his charges to crash the net during practice. The extra work paid immediate dividends as the Pens scored just 1:45 into the contest. Jordan Staal drove down the left side of the Florida zone and dropped the puck to a trailing Kennedy, who lashed his 20th goal of the season past Scott Clemmensen.
Although the Pens continued to press the attack, the hustling young Panthers rallied to take the lead late in the first period on a pair of rapid-fire goals by Jack Skille and Clay Wilson.
“Too much of trading chances against them,” Pascal Dupuis noted afterward.
Showing plenty of resilience, the Pens bounced back. Forty-five seconds into the second frame they knotted the score on a nice bit of teamwork by the makeshift line of Dupuis, Max Talbot and Chris Conner. Conner outworked a Panthers defender behind the Florida cage and slipped the puck to Talbot, who fed Dupuis with a pretty cross-crease pass. The speedy winger banged the rubber into a wide-open net.
The Pens did a much better job of controlling the tempo, limiting the Panthers to just three second-period shots. However, the game opened up in the final frame as each team pressed for the go-ahead goal. The “Peskies” nearly took the lead with eight minutes to play on a gorgeous passing play by Alexei Kovalev, James Neal and Mark Letestu, but Clemmensen stopped “Tester” from in tight. Moments later, Johnson made a spectacular glove save on David Booth to keep the score knotted at 2-2.
With a delayed penalty called against the Panthers, the Pens broke through on a nifty tic-tac-toe passing play at 12:49. Staal slipped the puck between his legs to Paul Martin, who quickly relayed the rubber to Michalek at the right point. Taking full advantage of open space, the Pens defender skated to the top of the circle and beat Clemmensen with a blistering drive.
“The goalie came out to challenge me,” Michalek said, “and I saw the opening on the blocker side.”
The stage was set for some late-game heroics by Johnson. With five minutes to go he denied a streaking Booth with a beautiful pad save. When Kris Letang drew a hooking penalty to hand Florida a power play, Johnson stopped Booth and Marty Reasoner on a pair of bang-bang chances from the doorstep. Craig Adams, sporting a brand-new Mohawk haircut, finally put the game on ice with an empty-netter at 18:30.
The Penguins reached the 100-point plateau for the fourth time in five seasons … They maintain a three-point bulge over Tampa Bay in the conference standings … Jordan Staal picked up his 100th career assist on Kennedy’s goal … The big center enjoyed a three-assist game … Arron Asham was scratched with a lower body injury … Mike Comrie dressed in his place … Deryk Engelland and Eric Godard were healthy scratches.
The Penguins close out their regular season home schedule Tuesday night against New Jersey. The black and gold lead the season series 3-2.
*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.