Who said Penguins can’t fly? Certainly not the Tampa Bay Lightning. Entering Sunday night’s contest at CONSOL Energy Center on a red-hot 7-1-2 roll, the Bolts watched an early 2-0 lead evaporate in the face of yet another withering offensive assault by the black and gold.
On the heels of an incendiary eight-goal outburst against Winnipeg, the Penguins opened the game looking crisp and confident. However, shortly after Tampa Bay goalie Mathieu Garon stopped Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz from the doorstep, the Bolts snagged the lead on a pair of rapid-fire goals by Steve Downie 11 seconds apart.
Thanks to a strong shift by the trio of Cal O’Reilly, Dustin Jeffrey, and Steve Sullivan, the Pens regained their early composure. Aided by a late holding penalty to Steven Stamkos, the home team struck back with a power-play tally at 16:15. Kris Letang feathered a cross-ice pass into the wheelhouse of Malkin, who blew a one-timer past Garon from the right faceoff dot.
Following Saturday’s script to the letter, the Penguins blitzed the Lightning with a ferocious 19-shot barrage in the second period. The tone was set right from the opening draw, when Jordan Staal tested Garon with a backhander. On the next rush Kunitz split the Tampa defense and fired the puck past a helpless Garon on the blocker side to tie the score at 2-2.
With the capacity crowd chanting “Let’s Go Pens,” the boys from the ‘Burgh continued to pour it on. At 4:28 Kunitz fed a pretty snap-pass to Letang, who ripped the rubber home off Garon’s glove for his eight goal of the campaign. Stamkos nearly countered for the Bolts moments later, but Brent Johnson made a key save.
Pittsburgh continued to fire away with wicked precision. Near the 11-minute mark Kunitz floated a beautiful saucer pass into the path of an onrushing Malkin. The rangy Russian tapped it past Garon for his second tally of the night. At the other end of the ice Letang foiled Downie’s bid for a hat trick to preserve the Pens’ 4-2 lead heading into the intermission.
Mindful that they’d been drawn into a track meet by the Jets the day before, the Penguins focused on puck management during the final period. With less than five minutes to play Johnson stopped Brett Clark from the slot with a left-pad save to thwart Tampa’s last real scoring chance.
Spurred on by an adoring crowd Malkin provided some late drama—not to mention a few lighthearted moments—when he tried in vain to score into an empty net. Just before the buzzer the big center, clearly exhausted from his efforts, rang a shot off the right post. It was perhaps the only time all evening that a bounce didn’t go the Penguins’ way.
“Everybody chipped in again tonight,” Letang said afterward. “It was a great victory.”
Letang (a goal and two assists) earned the No. 1 star … “Tanger” registered six points over the weekend … Malkin (two goals) was voted No. 2 star … “Geno” has 17 goals in his last 17 games … Kunitz (a goal and two assists) was awarded the No. 3 star … Pittsburgh outshot Tampa Bay (41-23) … James Neal had three assists … Johnson (21 saves) earned his first victory since December 3 … The Pens have won six straight games at home … Arron Asham, Sidney Crosby, Simon Despres, Tyler Kennedy, and Ben Lovejoy were scratches.
The Penguins (32-19-5) are off until Wednesday, when they welcome Anaheim (22-24-9) to CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens (69 points) moved into a second-place tie in the Atlantic Division with Philadelphia.
*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.