Sidney Crosby had his sixth three-point night of the season and Beau Bennett netted his first NHL goal, powering the Penguins to a 5-3 victory over the Lightning on Sunday night at Consol Energy Center.
Pittsburgh, which took over first place in the Eastern Conference with the win, led 3-0 after the first period on a pair of goals from Crosby and one from defenseman Paul Martin. Tampa Bay scored two of the next three goals, including the league-leading 13th off the stick of Steven Stamkos, but Matt Cooke put the game away with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
Stamkos earned three points (1g, 2a) to stay one ahead of Crosby for the lead in the NHL scoring race, but the Lightning (9-8-1, 19 points) couldn’t prevent the Penguins (13-6-0, 26 points) from winning their second straight and improving to 5-4-0 on home ice. Cooke, Letang and Martin had two points apiece.
It’s tempting to say the game was won in the opening 20 minutes, if only because it may have been the Penguins’ finest period of the season. Taking a left-wing pass from Chris Kunitz, Crosby sniped a sharp-angle wrister over Tampa Bay goalie Anders Lindback just 76 seconds into the game. The Penguins captain picked up his ninth goal at 7:15, deflecting a Martin shot that rattled off Lindback and into the net.
With Evgeni Malkin sidelined due to a concussion he suffered Friday, James Neal was inserted on Crosby’s line alongside Kunitz. The trio was effective all night, but the second line of Cooke, Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis contributed on Martin’s tally in the final minute of the frame. Cooke and Martin worked a give-and-go down the right side, with Martin pouncing on the rebound of Cooke’s shot for his third of the year.
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher replaced Lindback (seven saves) with former Penguin Mathieu Garon to start the second. A fortunate bounce gave Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer a goal 1:37 into the period, serving notice that the final 40 minutes wouldn’t be a cruise to the finish line for the Penguins.
Stamkos delivered that message with authority less than two minutes later when he connected on a signature one-timer from the left circle during a Tampa Bay two-man advantage; Simon Despres and Craig Adams took consecutive penalties 25 seconds apart to set up that opportunity.
The Penguins got a 5-on-3 power play of their own later in the period, when Kris Letang’s lunging save at the Lightning blue line directly led to Bennett’s first strike. Letang tossed a 60-foot pass across the ice to the right circle, where Crosby grabbed and fired a dish to Bennett on the left side for an open-net tally. Pittsburgh’s third-ranked power play – converting at 27.4 percent – has now scored at least once in 11 straight games.
Once again, however, the Southeast Division-leading Lightning demonstrated why they’re the highest-scoring team in the NHL to this point. On a delayed penalty 3:15 into the third, rookie Cory Conacher punched in his seventh after Victor Hedman’s pass got deflected to him in the slot.
Marc-Andre Fleury was challenged further in the third, most notably when he denied Richard Panik’s breakaway just moments after Conacher’s strike. Fleury made 27 saves in his second straight victory.
Kunitz and Sutter each hit the post in the third with the Penguins protecting their one-goal lead, but Cooke finally clinched the game from center ice at 19:08, with assists going to Letang and Sutter. Tampa Bay kept Garon (10 saves) on the bench after that, giving Fleury another chance for that elusive first goal. His attempt from behind his net was on target but got intercepted by the last Lightning defender.
The Penguins travel to South Florida to face the Panthers on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Pittsburgh topped Florida 3-1 on Friday night.