If the Pittsburgh Penguins need to bust out of a minor slump, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the team to face.
Topping Columbus 2-1 on Friday, Pittsburgh ended its agonizing three-game losing streak, and swept the season series 4-0.
Then, with 9:25 left in the third, the score would quickly change.
Forward Chris Kunitz snapped home his 34th goal of the season, and then 47-seconds later, Beau Bennett, who was playing in his first game since Nov. 22, potted his second twine-tickler of the season – which proved to be the game-winner.
Although Blue Jackets’ forward Matt Calvert was able to redirect James Wisniewski’s slap-shot in the net to bring Pittsburgh’s lead down to one, Pens’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stonewalled Columbus thereafter, and picked up his 35th win of the season.
It was a much needed victory for Pittsburgh, who had mustered just four goals in the three games prior to Friday’s tilt. And despite Columbus being a team Pittsburgh usually dismantles, they’re still fighting for a playoff spot, which makes the game that much more difficult to win.
For Pittsburgh, this win also meant finally beating a backup goaltender.
In the past three contests, the Pens’ performed against their opposition’s second goalie option, and being able to get over the hump of defeats to backups is comforting – to say the least.
However, the Pens don’t come out with a win without Fleury, who turned away 35-of-36 shots and garnered his first two-points since Mar. 11. Fleury made a number of key saves down the stretch of Friday’s game, all on his way to collecting the contest’s First Star – and a well deserved accolade.
Having Fleury be on top of his game in these remaining matchups is crucial heading into the postseason. He certainly was sharp last night, so, hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
Bennett’s re-insertion was alleviating in itself, but registering the game-winner? Icing on the cake.
Although Bennett didn’t log as many minutes as his linemates (14:51) – Jussi Jokinen (16:08), James Neal (17:20) – he still managed to make an impact, as the team probably wanted to ease him back into the fold.
Generating a handful of scoring chances by pelting Jackets’ netminder Curtis McElhinney with three shots, Bennett buried his first goal since Nov. 20 on a two-on-one breakaway with Jokinen. Electing not to pass, Bennett effortlessly wristed the biscuit past McElhinney, and sheer relief – with a smile – was his reaction immediately following.
Good for Bennett. And good news for Pittsburgh.
Captain Sidney Crosby extended his points streak to three games, and increased both his scoring (97) and assists (63) lead in the NHL. It’s comforting to see he’s taken the team on his back now that Evgeni Malkin’s sidelined.
Only issue that’s still troubling Pittsburgh is their power play.
Drawing up a big goose egg on the man-advantage opportunities again last night (0-4), the Pens’ have gone 1-16 on the power play over the last four games, and 0-11 in the last two. They seem to be missing Malkin’s presence, however, nonetheless, Pittsburgh must manage without the Russian-cannon.
The Pens will get a rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, and considering both clubs are without two huge talents – Patrick Kane, Malkin – it makes for a very intriguing matchup.
Hopefully, Pittsburgh can keep this momentum trucking past Sunday.
The game can be seen on the NBC Sports Network, and is set to start at 7:30 p.m.