After a pair of weekend losses to the Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins were happy to welcome back two top forwards in Chris Kunitz and James Neal for their matchup against another playoff hungry opponent in the Dallas Stars Tuesday night.
Kunitz's return paid off handsomely, as he scored a goal and set up another in a 5-1 rout to end the Penguins two game losing streak. Sidney Crosby added two goals and an assist and fellow first line member Lee Stempniak scored his first goal as a Penguin and had two assists as well.
The first line power aside, the rest of the team played well too. Backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff played a strong game, stopping 32 of 33 Stars shots and looking in control the entire game. Brandon Sutter scored his third short-handed goal of the year with a nice backhand move on a breakaway sprung by Brian Gibbons.
The Pens put their foot on the gas and never looked back in this one. Too much skill and they overpowered the Dallas defense on several occasions, beating them to the front of the net, like Crosby did to ex-Penguin Sergei Gonchar on one goal, and Vern Fiddler on another.
Some more fun thoughts on this one:
- Crosby doesn't often go scoreless in multiple stretches and he broke out big time tonight. The Pens are now 25-0-2 when Crosby has a multi-point night. Just more fuel for the MVP fire.
- And, a blowout game meant head coach Dan Bylsma could ease off playing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the stretch. Sid only played 16:13 on the night (well off his season average of 22 minutes), Malkin only got 18:02. Defensemen minutes got to be spread evenly as well, with no one D going over 21:36, and none under 16:16.
- The temperature might not be heating up just yet, but Lee Stempniak sure is. He's played seven games with the Pens, the latter 6 games on Crosby's line he has 6 points (1g, 5a). After a few blah games from the top line, they combined to score 4 goals, 4 assists, all at even-strength. That's huge. They also combined to get 12 total shots on goal on the night.
- It's weird and somewhat sad to see this old version of Sergei Gonchar playing 15 minutes a night, and hardly getting a sniff on the power play. But that's life in 2014 when the Stars decide to use four forwards and former ex-Pen Alex Goligoski on their top PP unit.
- Refs often catch hell- and sometimes for good reason. So it's nice to point out an instance where one did his job excellently. On the Sutter breakaway, he deked backhand and shot off the post. The arena gave a premature celebration with the goal horn and spotlights, but Wes McCauley kept his cool, as the puck hit the post, bounced off goalie Kari Lehtonen and slowly rolled back towards the goal-line. McCauley skated out from behind the net to get a better view/angle of the puck, and his "no goal" sign got turned into a "goal" as he observed the puck slide in. Replays would confirm that he nailed it, good on him.
- Lehtonen, by the way, played about as well as any goalie who allowed 5 goals on 32 shots ever did. He made a couple of very good saves to try and keep his team in there, and even the goals surrendered, it'd be tough to blame the keeper on those plays. Lehtonen also had one sweet play in the 3rd period where he saw a weakness up the center of the ice and flipped a perfect long breakout pass to spring a teammate on a breakaway. Rare to see a goalie pull that off so smoothly.
- The Pens are now 18-2-2 in their last 22 home games.
- Chris Kunitz tied his career high of 61 points (32g, 29a).
- Matt Niskanen had an assist on the night and boosted his career high in points to 40 (10g, 30a).
- The Pens are 9-2 this season at home against Western Conference opponents.
It was a nice game for the Pens to get back to their winning ways and show that adding back a couple of important forwards had them looking more like themselves. But, they'll have to stay sharp as their next game is a trip to Detroit, another playoff-hungry team fighting right in the mix of teams looking to get above the right side of the cutoff.