It was a scenario with which the Pittsburgh Penguins have become all too familiar. The players skated onto the CONSOL Energy Center ice for the home opener knowing they’d face the improved Florida Panthers without superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Once again, the gritty, never-make-excuses Pens shrugged off the adversity and delivered a workmanlike 4-2 victory for the hometown faithful.
The Penguins drew first blood late in a competitive opening period when Joe Vitale set up Pascal Dupuis for his first goal of the season. The dynamic duo figured prominently in the black-and-gold’s second tally as well. Eleven minutes into the second period Dupuis found Vitale with a lead pass in the Florida zone. Using his excellent speed to full advantage, the Pens’ rookie streaked to the net and fed the puck to Matt Cooke at the edge of the crease. “Cookie” banged the puck past goalie Jose Theodore for his third tally in four games.
“I shot the puck maybe six inches,” Cooke said with a smile.
The Panthers, buoyed by talented newcomers Brian Campbell, Sean Bergenheim, and Kris Versteeg, immediately countered. Marcel Goc gathered in a pass from the aptly named Jack Skille and beat Marc-Andre Fleury to close the gap to 2-1. When Cooke drew an interference penalty two minutes later, Florida seemed poised for a comeback.
It was the Penguins, however, who seized the momentum. Putting on a penalty-killing clinic, Dupuis and Jordan Staal pinned the Panthers deep in their end with an aggressive forecheck. Craig Adams forced a turnover and the rubber squirted loose to Richard Park, who promptly hammered a shot off a goal post. The rebound hit Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and skipped into the net.
Florida threatened to make a game of it at 3:16 of the final frame when they narrowed the margin to 3-2, thanks to a tally by ex-Capital Tomas Fleischmann. But James Neal responded with a huge goal at 6:39 to restore the Pens’ two-goal cushion.
Fleury, who turned in a solid 32-save performance, provided some tension in the waning seconds when he attempted to score into an empty net. “Flower” wound up plunking the puck off a teammate and had to scramble to make a game-ending save.
“They [the Penguins] play together as a team,” Campbell noted afterward. “They make every little play count.”
Dupuis notched a goal and an assist to earn the No. 1 star … Vitale (two assists) was named No. 2 star … The Penguins killed off five Florida power plays and remain perfect on the penalty kill (0 power-play goals against in 16 chances) … Kris Letang and Deryk Engelland were a combined plus-six (plus-3 each) … The Pens dominated the face-off circle, winning 34 of 55 draws … Steve MacIntyre, Malkin, and Brooks Orpik were scratches.
The Penguins host archrival Washington at CONSOL Energy Center on Thursday night. The teams will wear commemorative patches to honor the members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl who perished in a plane crash last month.
*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.