hen the Penguins slipped out of playoff contention a couple of months ago, and still hadn’t beaten any of their toughest competition in the Eastern Conference, catching the first-place New York Rangers in the standings seemed out of the question.
A couple of weeks ago the fact that the Rangers would walk away with the top spot in the East still seemed like a foregone conclusion.
But after rattling off nine straight wins, including Sunday afternoon’s 5-2 victory over the Boston Bruins, who were playing their second game in 24 hours, the Pens are in striking distance of that elusive top spot.
“I think we knew going back to the last game against the Rangers that the only way we had a chance to catch them was if we won all three of those (remaining games against them), and I still feel that way,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after the game. “We’ve inched closer, we’ve gone on a streak where we’ve won nine, but we expect the Rangers to win hockey games, too.”
The Penguins’ win streak includes games against upper echelon teams such as Rangers and the Boston Bruins, who were unable to overcome a 3-0 first-period deficit on Sunday.
“This was another game for us where we talked about making a statement with every shift we had,” Bylsma said.
While Pittsburgh had an early cushion and ended up winning by three goals, Boston pushed back in the physical game, peppering Fleury with 36 shots.
“(The Bruins) come into buildings and they try to run you through the walls,” Arron Asham said of the physical Bruins, who were actually outhit 21-12 on Sunday. “Today we kind of turned the tables on them.”
Evgeni Malkin became just the 17th Russian-born player, and only the fifth active Russian to reach the 500-point mark. James Neal also reached a milestone, recording his 200th career point, and Chris Kunitz’ second period goal gave him the fifth 20-goal season of his career.
While the top line of Malkin, Neal and Kunitz combined for seven points, secondary scoring also buoyed the Pens, as Arron Asham, Matt Niskanen and Pascal Dupuis each scored a goal. The Penguins are now 15-1-1 this season when Dupuis scores.
“Down the stretch, two points behind the Rangers right now, we feel good about our game,” Dupuis said. “Hopefully Thursday at MSG we’ll have another big game.”
Newly acquired backup Marty Turco made his season debut with the Bruins in the game. After his starting goaltender allowed two goals on three shots to start the game and ended the period with his team in a 0-3 hole, Bruins’ Head Coach Claude Julien opted to pull starter Tim Thomas in favor of Turco, who turned aside 20 shots and looked strong in net despite the fact that he had not played since March 2011.
Aaron Asham jumped on Ben Lovejoy’s rebound to put the Pens up by one 3:24 into the first period. Matt Niskanen’s shot from the point deflected off of Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara and past Thomas to give the Pens a 2-0 lead less than four minutes later. James Neal gave the Pens a 3-0 lead during a 5-on-3 Penguins’ power play – one of two that Pittsburgh had in the first – with just 1:12 left to play in the period.
David Krejci capitalized on two neutral zone turnovers in the second period to cut the Pens’ lead to two goals going into the third period.
The Bruins kept pushing in the final period, and came dangerously close to making it a one-goal game after Evgeni Malkin took a boarding penalty. Marc-Andre Fleury came up with a huge save on David Krejci to maintain his team’s two-goal lead.
“Their D just took a shot and I didn’t quite see it, it hit my leg and bounced back to their guy,” Fleury said, describing the sequence. “I was scrambling to get back in the net, I saw him going around so I tried to get as much as myself there and I got it.”
Dupuis scored shortly after Malkin’s penalty expired to squash any chance of a Bruins comeback.
The Pens next play the Rangers Thursday night in New York.
1. James Neal
2. Evgeni Malkin
3. David Krejci
PIT: Arron Asham (4), Matt Niskanen (4), James Neal (31), Chris Kunitz (20), Pascal Dupuis (18)
BOS: David Krejci (19, 20)
PIT: Ben Lovejoy, Craig Adams, Evgeni Malkin (3), James Neal (2), Jordan Staal, Deryk Engelland
BOS: Tyler Sequin (2), Milan Lucic (2)
In the Net:
PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury (W) 34-36
BOS: Tim Thomas (L) 7-10, Marty Turco 20-22