Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby recorded five points each as the Penguins extended their winning streak to five with a 6-1 victory over the Islanders on Sunday night at Consol Energy Center. Kunitz had three goals as part of his career-high output, giving the suddenly prolific winger his second hat trick of the season.
For Crosby, it was the second five-assist game of his career and his third five-point effort against the Islanders. The 25-year-old center has 20 points during his current eight-game scoring streak and is now eight points ahead of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the league scoring lead.
Crosby has 45 points, and Kunitz (36 points) might be more of a threat to gain ground if Crosby wasn’t earning assists on the vast majority of Kunitz’ goals, as he did on all three Sunday night. The third member of the Penguins’ top forward line also contributed in a significant way, as Pascal Dupuis scored twice to give him 11 on the season. Pittsburgh (18-8-0, 36 points) has four double-digit goal-getters after 26 games, with James Neal, who also scored Sunday, and Kunitz each at 17 while Crosby has 12.
Pittsburgh has scored 26 goals during its five-game streak, a run that matches the team’s longest of the year. The Penguins’ top line of Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis carried most of the offensive load with explosive center Evgeni Malkin out due to an upper-body injury he suffered Saturday in Toronto.
On the other side of the puck, the Penguins allowed fewer than three goals for the first time in seven games, as goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped 23 shots for his first home victory. Vokoun was solid when needed, but the Penguins’ defensive success was more about puck possession and smart decision-making than above-average goaltending. In addition, the Pittsburgh penalty kill was perfect on three opportunities, rebounding from allowing four power-play goals in the past two games.
The Penguins entered the game with a poor all-time track record against New York starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov, but they chased the veteran netminder with five goals on 22 shots through two periods. Brad Boyes netted the only goal for the Islanders (11-12-3, 25 points), who had gone 3-0-2 in their previous five games.
Kunitz began his big night with a primary assist on Dupuis’ even-strength goal even minutes into the game. After taking a quick feed from Crosby at the right wing boards, Kunitz passed to Dupuis, who fired a one-timer from along the goal line that rattled in off the body of a surprised Nabokov.
Minutes later, Brad Boyes and Travis Hamonic took back-to-back penalties to put the Penguins on a two-man advantage. The Islanders managed to survive persistent Pittsburgh pressure for more than a minute, but Kunitz guided in a pass from Neal just as Boyes’ minor expired. Crosby earned a secondary assist on the goal at 13:46.
Kunitz picked up his second goal from a similar spot, and again it was Neal and Crosby serving as set-up men on the power play. This time the chance came off the rush, with Crosby pushing the puck up to Kunitz, who worked a quick give-and-go for another backdoor tap-in with 3:19 left in the first.
The Islanders got their only goal of the night after Penguins defenseman Simon Despres appeared to step on the puck at his own blue line, giving Boyes a good look at the net from the right circle. The former 40-goal scorer with the St. Louis Blues buried a wrist shot into the top left corner to make it 3-1 with 8:07 gone in the second.
But the Penguins didn’t allow that solitary mistake to unravel them, and even though they were outshot 6-5 in the second, they put two more goals past Nabokov before the end of the period. Kunitz completed his second hat trick of the season at 13:34 when he fired the rebound of Kris Letang’s shot high into the net from close range. Dupuis got the play started with a soft “area pass” to Crosby on the right wing, who twisted the puck back to a pinching Letang.
Letang earned another assist 16 seconds later when his high clearing attempt bounced off the glass and over the head of New York defenseman Andy MacDonald. Unfortunately for the Islanders, Neal swooped in behind MacDonald, grabbed the puck and rifled a low shot past Nabokov’s blocker for a 5-1 advantage.
Dupuis capped the evening when the Penguins converted an Islanders turnover into a tic-tac-toe goal at 6:39 of the third. Kunitz intercepted a pass near the New York blue line and dished to Crosby in front of the net. Instead of shooting on replacement goalie Kevin Poulin, Crosby relayed the puck to Dupuis for a one-timer from inside the right circle.
The Penguins will play one of the few teams in the NHL with a better points percentage than theirs when they host the Bruins (16-3-3, 35 points) at 7:30 on Tuesday. Pittsburgh leads Boston by one point in the Eastern Conference standings, but the Bruins have played four fewer games.
NOTES: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma indicated after the game that Malkin, who recently returned from a concussion he suffered in late February, would likely be out another “one or two weeks.” Bylsma said the team does not believe the injury is another concussion. Malkin sustained the undisclosed ailment when Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk laid a heavy check on him in Saturday’s third period.