Of the four new players the Pittsburgh Penguins picked up via trades this season, Jussi Jokinen was the least heralded at the time of his arrival. Judging by his first game, he may be the best fit for what the team needs right now.
Jokinen scored the Penguins’ only regulation goal and was the lone player to convert in the post-overtime shootout, providing all the offense required in a 2-1 decision over the Rangers on Friday night at Consol Energy Center.
The division rivals were scoreless through two periods before Jokinen blasted a pass from Pascal Dupuis over the glove of New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist 30 seconds into the third. Jokinen manned the center position between Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, the spot usually occupied by the injured Sidney Crosby. The 30-year-old Finn also won 13 of 15 faceoffs, an aspect of the game that has been a struggle for Pittsburgh lately.
Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 34 shots and denied all three New York shootout attempts, but the numbers don’t fully describe his level of play. Fleury’s glove hand rejected at least four high-quality scoring chances, capped by a ridiculous save on Derek Stepan’s glorious opportunity late in the third period.
In addition to Crosby, minutes-eating defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang also missed the game, and the Rangers took advantage of their absence for the second straight outing. Two nights after firing 39 shots at Fleury in a 6-1 win, New York threw 35 pucks his way, including 14 in the third period when Rick Nash connected for the visitors’ only goal.
Indeed, it looked like New York’s game in the latter stages, but Fleury played probably his strongest game of the season. Although Nash scuttled his shot at a shutout with 4:49 left in regulation, the 28-year-old stopped Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Callahan in the shootout to earn his 19th win in 27 appearances.
Following a ragged overtime, Jokinen led off the tiebreaker and snapped a shot over Lundqvist’s blocker to put the Penguins (29-10-0, 58 points) in command quickly. The defending Vezina Trophy winner rejected Evgeni Malkin in the second round and Dupuis in the third, but Fleury matched him to end the game and break the Pens’ two-game losing streak.
On the negative side of the ledger, Pittsburgh winger James Neal appeared disoriented after a third-period collision with Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto. Neal left the game and didn’t return, further hamstringing the Penguins’ attack.
The Neal injury was part of a contentious game that featured disputed penalties, rattling body checks and a roiling argument between Nash and Matt Cooke while the former sat on the Rangers bench. Nash stoked the odd dispute when he slashed Cooke, then hid behind his teammates, who came to his defense.
The Penguins won four of the five games against the Rangers this season, although the teams could meet in the first round of the playoffs next month. Pittsburgh remains in first place in the Eastern Conference, five points ahead of Montreal, while New York (18-15-4, 40 points) moved into a seventh-place tie with the Islanders.
Jokinen will face his former team Tuesday when the Penguins travel to Carolina to start a three-game swing through the South. The Hurricanes won 4-1 on Feb. 28 in the teams’ only previous meeting.