Dec 5, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) watches as San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton (19) prepares to shoot the puck during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins surge past San Jose Sharks to take top-level matchup

Dec 5, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Jayson Megna (left front) reacts after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the top teams in the NHL faced off Thursday night in Pittsburgh. The result was an intense, closely-contested battle, even if the final score would indicate otherwise.

The Pittsburgh Penguins rode a four-goal outburst early in the second period, featuring two tallies by Chris Kunitz, to a 5-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center.

Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh (20-9-1, 41 points) downed the first place team in the Pacific without the services of the league’s No. 2 scorer Evgeni Malkin, who missed the game with a lower-body injury. The Penguins have won a season-high five in a row, their latest a testament to capitalizing on opportunities and strong goaltending.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 44 shots from the high-powered Sharks (19-4-5, 43 points) in one of his finest performances of the season. San Jose entered the night as the second-highest scoring team in the NHL, but its impressive attack could manage only Tomas Hertl‘s goal after falling behind 4-0 in the opening 7:30 of the second period.

Sidney Crosby recorded three assists during that game-changing surge, while Pascal Dupuis, Jayson Megna and Kris Letang also netted goals for the Pens, who chased Sharks netminder Antti Niemi after two periods. Crosby, skating in his 500th career regular-season contest, extended his lead in the scoring race to four points over Malkin and nine over anyone else.

Following a spirited yet tight-checking first period, the flow of play opened up considerably in the second. Dupuis started the offensive deluge when he tipped Brooks Orpik‘s point shot over Niemi’s shoulder 27 seconds after intermission, then Megna threw a short-side wrister into the net at 2:34, capping a 3-on-1 rush started by Simon Despres‘ neutral-zone chip.

An offensive-zone faceoff win by Crosby led to the Penguins’ third goal in exactly five minutes. James Neal hopped on a loose puck behind the San Jose net and fed Crosby for a quick shot from the left circle. Niemi made the stop but kicked the rebound right to a lurking Kunitz for an easy finish, his 15th of the season.

Kunitz added his team-best 16th a couple minutes later with the Pens on their second power play. Crosby dished to Neal for a strong move to the net, and the puck floated to Kunitz’ stick as he crashed the left side of the crease. Pittsburgh’s four-goal lead was short-lived, as Hertl’s centering pass deflected off Deryk Engelland‘s stick and under Fleury at 9:27.

But the Sharks, despite a stunning 24-shot output in the second period, couldn’t generate another goal before intermission. Fleury spectacularly turned away chance after chance, including Patrick Marleau‘s sterling rebound opportunity and several deflections and re-directions from close range.

Second-year Sharks goalie Alex Stalock replaced the perforated Niemi to start the third, and Letang greeted him with a long drive through a screen that hit twine 3:30 into the period. Letang’s sixth of the year allowed the Penguins to feel even more comfortable about settling into a no-frills game for much of the third.

BOX SCORE

The Penguins hit the road again Saturday night to face the Bruins for the second time in two weeks. Pittsburgh is 1-0-1 against Boston this season, including a 4-3 overtime defeat Nov. 25 at TD Garden.

Notes: Dupuis left the game late in the second period with an undisclosed injury…Three Sharks (Joe Thornton, Marleau, Scott Hannan) competed in the same city in which they were drafted in 1997…San Jose’s 45 shots were a season high against the Penguins, while Fleury’s 44 stops were also the most by a Pittsburgh goalie this year.

Tags: Chris Kunitz Marc-Andre Fleury Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby

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