Chris Kunitz should’ve had a hat trick, but he’ll have to settle for triggering the game-deciding play.
Kunitz, who was a dubious penalty call away from a three-goal first period, capped a productive night with an assist on Sidney Crosby‘s winning goal with 1:16 to play in a 4-3 Pittsburgh Penguins victory over the visiting New York Islanders on Friday night.
The two teams entered the third period tied at 3 after a wild and loose middle frame, but there were no more goals to be had until the final moments of regulation. Kunitz, in typically tenacious fashion, crashed in behind the New York net to free up a loose puck, which caromed to linemate Pascal Dupuis along the goal line.
Dupuis centered for a wide-open Crosby to redirect past the outstretched right leg of Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin, who had just stopped an Evgeni Malkin breakaway and was otherwise quite brilliant in keeping the Penguins (15-8-0, 30 points) from burying the last-place Islanders (8-12-3, 19 points) earlier in the night. But Poulin couldn’t stop Crosby’s 250th NHL goal – and team-leading 12th of the season – which delivered Pittsburgh’s third straight win.
The Penguins threatened to put the game out of reach in the first period, as Kunitz connected off gorgeous passes from Crosby and James Neal, respectively, to build a 2-0 lead eight minutes in. Both goals were on the power play, giving Kunitz 11 on the year, and he should’ve had a third with 1:10 left in the first if not for a highly-questionable high-sticking penalty whistled against Malkin as Kunitz’ shot slid through Poulin’s legs.
After Thomas Vanek cut the Pittsburgh lead in half with a one-timer at 1:46 of the second, Malkin snapped his career-long 15-game goal drought with his fourth of the season at 6:25. Malkin had fed Neal for a first-class chance at the lip of the crease, but Neal forced the puck back to Malkin, who found a way to jam it under Poulin despite heavy New York harassment.
However, the dangerous Islanders lured the Penguins into an up-and-down game, eventually rallying to tie. Colin McDonald snapped a right-wing wrister past rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff with 8 1/2 minutes to go in the period, then Vanek netted his second of the game 81 seconds later by backhanding the rebound of Kyle Okposo‘s shot into a vacated net.
Pittsburgh had multiple opportunities to extend their lead or regain it in the second period, with the teams trading odd-man rushes frequently. Brandon Sutter misfired on a long breakaway from center ice, and Malkin and Crosby also couldn’t convert good looks on Poulin (30 saves).
The game calmed considerably in the third. Immediately following Crosby’s tiebreaking goal, the Islanders got a final power play chance when Tanner Glass was sent off for slashing. Zatkoff, who made 32 saves in his second NHL victory, stood firm with his defenders to prevent New York from forcing overtime.
The Penguins head north to Montreal on Saturday for their first matchup of the season with the Canadiens. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. from the Bell Centre.