With their top two lines back in order, the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to overcome a third-period deficit for the first time this year, scoring three unanswered in the final frame to top the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 Monday.
The Penguins (15-8-0, 30 points) extended their Atlantic-Division lead to five points as the New Jersey Devils lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 earlier in the evening. Tampa Bay (9-12-1, 19 points), after starting the season with one of the best records in hockey, have just three wins in their last 15 games and points in only four of those contests, dropping to 13th in the East despite scoring more goals per game than any team in hockey.
The Penguins have now matched their two-game losing skid with a pair of wins. As always, the points have come by way of offense. And, as always, Malkin and Crosby were instrumental in providing the offense Monday.
"I think that was the reason we won tonight," Kunitz said after the game. "We kind of went through a little lull there in the second. They scored a few goals. We didn't have the same energy that we did in the first. One goal like that by Geno, I think the next shift out Sid gets one and that's a big moment for us."
Kunitz opened the scoring early in the first, continuing the Penguins' trend of early goals. However, more than 40 minutes would pass before Malkin's highlight-reel goal tied the game at 2-2.
Malkin had a goal and an assist in his first game back from injury and was flying throughout the game. The second line of Matt Cooke-Malkin-Neal looked as good as any second-line combination has looked this year, due mostly to Malkin's fleet-footed performance.
"He looked really good," Crosby said. "When he's going like that it's pretty tough to stop him."
The contest was a meeting of the NHL's highest-scoring teams, and also featured its highest-scoring players.
Crosby and Steven Stamkos entered the game ranked first and second in points, and each had two points on the night. Crosby (38 points in 23 games) and Stamkos (34 points in 22 games) are the only players in the NHL with at least 30 points.
Stamkos and Neal also rank first and second in goals in the NHL, and added a combined three markers to their totals Monday (including two for Stamkos).
Even the secondary scorers in this tilt rank among the league's best. Kunitz and Martin St. Louis moved into a tie for third in the NHL points race with 28, and Kris Letang's two assists gave him 21 points on the season, four more than the nearest NHL defenseman and 23rd amongst all NHL skaters.
With so much scoring power, it was easy to forgive the goaltenders for a rough night, though three goals against Marc-Andre Fleury looked like a clinic following some of the team's recent performances.
"That was a fun one, definitely," Fleury said. "I was confident that if I could make a few key saves, we could get a few goals and get the win at the end."
Fleury stopped 25 of 28 on the night, earning his 11th win of the season.
Pittsburgh's defense continued its quest to prevent goals in the absence of perhaps its best defensive asset in Paul Martin, who missed Monday's game with a lower body injury. After Saturday's six-goal effort against the Canadiens, the Penguins limited the high-scoring Lightning to three goals, including a fluke redirect in the second period and Stamkos' 6-on-5 goal scored late in the third period.
Of note, the pairing of Mark Eaton and Matt Niskanen provided solid defensive play all night. If they can serve as a third pairing behind the shutdown unit of Martin and Brooks Orpik and a potential pairing of Simon Despres and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh's top-six would look as strong as any unit since the 2009 season.
The Penguins have two days off before their next match Thursday in Philadelphia.
Audio/Quotes courtesy Jason Seidling & Pittsburgh Penguins