On a day that started with excitement over the Penguins’ acquisition of 500-goal scorer Jarome Iginla, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz reminded everyone of their signifcant roles in the team’s remarkable winning streak.
Dupuis scored two goals and Kunitz added a goal and an assist, giving the Penguins (27-8-0, 54 points) more than enough offense in a 4-0 victory over Winnipeg on Thursday at Consol Energy Center. Pittsburgh has won 14 games in a row, tying them with the 2009-10 Washington Capitals and the 1929-30 Boston Bruins for the third-longest run of victories in NHL history.
Two night after combining with Marc-Andre Fleury on a team shutout, Tomas Vokoun got one all to his own, the 50th of his pro career. Vokoun made 20 saves to reach a plateau occupied by just 26 other league goalies.
Milestones aside, this was one of the more routine wins during the Penguins’ current burst to the top of the standings. Pittsburgh outshot Winnipeg 43-20 in a game that the home side snatched control of in the first period.
The shutout extended the Penguins’ recent stingy defense, as opponents have combined for just nine goals over the past 10 games. In addition to scoring the most goals in the NHL on a per-game basis (3.4), Pittsburgh allows the seventh-fewest (2.4).
The Jets (18-15-2, 38 points) got 38 saves from goalie Al Montoya but couldn’t expand upon their six-point lead over second-place Carolina in the Southeast Division.
The Atlantic Division is all but locked up for the Penguins, who are outpacing New Jersey by an incredible 17 points with 13 games to play. Pittsburgh leads Montreal by seven for first in the Eastern Conference.
Speaking of leads, captain Sidney Crosby earned two assists to put him 13 ahead of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos at the top of the league scoring race. Crosby, who has 56 points, has gotten on the scoresheet in six straight games.
Fellow transcendent talent Evgeni Malkin returned to the ice for the first time in more than two weeks, joining newcomer Brendan Morrow and regular winger James Neal on a rejuvenated second forward unit. Malkin scored his sixth goal of the season, confirming that his injured shoulder is back in game shape.
In addition, freshly-acquired defenseman Douglas Murray made his Penguins debut, attempting six shots next to blueline partner Matt Niskanen. Murray’s big-body presence helped make up for the absence of D-man Kris Letang, who was placed on the disabled list with a lower-body injury sustained Tuesday against Montreal.
No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury also got hurt Tuesday, giving Vokoun the start and further adding to the intrigue of a team goosed by the dramatic moves of general manager Ray Shero.
With all the hoopla over Iginla, it’s easy to forget how Kunitz has transformed himself into a goal scorer. He buried his 20th from the left circle after a no-look behind-the-back pass from Crosby, giving Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead with 4:57 left in the first.
While the first line has thrived all season, the second line has suffered without Malkin. The reigning MVP was galloping from the start, an eye-opening effort capped by a backdoor tap-in 3 1/2 minutes after Kunitz’ strike. Neal, whose scoring pace has slowed without Malkin, set him up from along the goal line.
The Jets began pushing the pace in the second period, and it put them further behind when defenseman Dustin Byfuglien got trapped in the Penguins zone after a rush about four minutes in. After Byfuglien couldn’t convert a wraparound, Crosby got the puck up the right wing to Kunitz, who snapped a pass to the slot for Dupuis to rifle home.
Dupuis displayed his new-found finishing ability again in the waning moments of the second, when he buried his 17th with the Penguins shorthanded. Collecting a loose puck at center ice, Dupuis looked off the trailing Tanner Glass before drilling a wrister under Montoya’s left arm.
Whatever drama remained in the third centered around Vokoun’s shutout. His point-blank save on Kyle Wellwood with less than eight minutes remaining bailed the Penguins out of a rare defensive miscue and kept the zero on the board.
The Penguins will host the New York Islanders on Saturday at 1 p.m., with Iginla set to make his Pittsburgh debut. Coincidentally, the Penguins would tie the 1981-82 Islanders if they can earn their 15th straight victory.
Notes: Prior to the game, the Penguins demoted rookie forward Beau Bennett to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. In his place, goalie Jeff Zatkoff was recalled, providing insurance for Fleury’s day-to-day injury status.