When 24-year-old center Brandon Sutter was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes last June, his primary selling points were stout defense and strong skating.
After the past couple weeks, you can add late-game offense to his skill set.
Sutter scored twice in a span of 2:24 to transform a late 2-1 Bruins lead into a 3-2 edge for the Penguins, and ultimately a victory by that same margin Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center. Pittsburgh (19-8-0, 38 points) has won a season-best six in a row to jump past Boston and tie Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference.
For Sutter, it was a continuation of a recent theme, as he scored a last-minute tying goal against Philadelphia on Feb. 20 and buried the overtime game-winner at Montreal on March 2, a 7-6 decision that started the Penguins’ current streak.
On Tuesday, Sutter gunned a shot from the left circle off the right post and in to tie the game with 5:27 left, completing a smooth transition play he started in front of the Bruins bench. Sutter dished the puck through skates to Beau Bennett, who fed James Neal for a rush into the Boston zone. Neal had a good look at the net, but pushed a pass to Sutter coming late.
Sutter scored from a similar spot with 2:03 remaining after Sidney Crosby, who failed to record a point for the first time in nine games, tried unsuccessfully to charge past Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Fellow Boston blueliner Dennis Seidenberg attempted to rip an exit pass to his right, but Sutter jumped in front and intercepted it.
With Crosby parked in front and drawing Boychuk, Sutter whistled a wrist shot under the glove of Bruins rookie goalie Anton Khudobin. Riding the energy of three goals in just more than four minutes of play, the Penguins defended their lead with the help of netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who played a mere supporting role on the evening.
Boston (17-4-3, 37 points) netted a pair of goals in the first period but appeared to lose energy as the game went along, perhaps due to its game the previous night in Ottawa. Nevertheless, the Penguins were relentless in keeping the pressure on, as evidenced by their outshooting the Bruins 12-4 in the third and 34-16 overall.
“When you give up just 16 shots to a team, you know you’re doing something right,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “You knew it was going to be hard to score against that team, but our guys kept coming and kept playing the right way. We weren’t taking any chances, just doing the things we need to do to be successful.”
The Penguins’ attrition advantage started to pay off when Chris Kunitz fired a one-timer past Khudobin with about six minutes left, engaging the sellout crowd. Kunitz’ 18 goals are second-most in the NHL; only Tampa Bay sniper Steven Stamkos has more, with 20.
Pittsburgh needed scoring from its secondary threats with center Evgeni Malkin sitting out his second game in a row with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Malkin missed four games due to a concussion from Feb. 22 to March 4, but the Penguins have still managed to score at least three goals in all but one of the matchups Malkin has been sidelined for.
Tuesday’s tilt was a collision between the highest-scoring team in the league (Pittsburgh) and the club that has allowed the third-fewest goals (Boston). Defense won out for much of the night, with the Bruins limiting the Penguins to predominantly perimeter shots until the decisive third period.
The Bruins connected for the only two goals of a cautious first period, as Chara and Seguin broke up the tentative play with tallies at 4:45 and 13:30, respectively. Chara’s fifth goal of the season was a one-time bomb from the right point that hopped in off Fleury’s right arm during a power play.
Boston took command of puck possession around the midway point of the frame, which paid off when Seguin deposited his ninth under the crossbar. Patrice Bergeron hit Seguin with a pass in front, as the latter got free of Tyler Kennedy on a rotation play. The Penguins were awarded a late power play when Andrew Ference shot the puck into the stands, but sloppiness continued to prevent them from generating much offense.
The Bruins continued to control the run of play until about halfway through the second, when the Penguins began spending long periods of time in the Boston zone. Although Pittsburgh was able to get only a few good looks at the net, it ended the second period with a 22-12 advantage in shots.
The Bruins, who played Monday night in Ottawa, continued to flag in the third, allowing Dustin Jeffrey a great chance off the rush and then taking back-to-back penalties in the first four minutes of the final frame. Despite good zone time, the Penguins couldn’t beat Khudobin during their 65-second two-man advantage.
But Pittsburgh continued to work on the forecheck in the hopes of at least avoiding its first home shutout in nearly two years. Kunitz ensured Khudobin wouldn’t stymie the Penguins all night when he drove Kris Letang’s cross-ice pass into the net from the right circle with 6:18 left in regulation.
Sutter took over from there, delivering the Penguins’ best comeback of the season and one of their most memorable in the past several years.
The Penguins will look for seven straight wins Thursday when they return to Toronto for their second matchup with the Maple Leafs in six days. Faceoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Air Canada Centre.