For the second straight evening, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top-level skill was on full display.
But unlike the previous night, Thursday was a real challenge.
The New York Islanders once again proved a formidable opponent, as the Penguins wrapped up the season series against their divisional rivals with a 6-4 victory at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz each had a goal and two assists for Pittsburgh, which improved to a stunning 21-4-1 since the last week of November. Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta scored a breathtaking goal and set up another, while James Neal and Matt Niskanen earned two assists apiece.
Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter netted the final three goals to help the Penguins sweep a back-to-back set for the fifth time this season. Pittsburgh (36-13-2, 74 points) defeated Montreal 5-1 at home Wednesday, erasing memories of a poor effort Monday against Florida.
The Pens’ energy output couldn’t be questioned on Long Island, where the action always seems to be frantic. That was the case yet again, as the Islanders (21-25-7, 49 points) led 2-0 before the visitors surged back to take a 4-2 edge into the third.
Last-place New York, which had won 10 of 13 entering the game, cut the Pittsburgh advantage to one on two occasions in the third. The Isles had their best chance to tie when they were awarded 50 seconds of 5-on-3 time with 7:05 to play, but Penguins first-year netminder Jeff Zatkoff made a lunging save on a seemingly sure goal by Frans Nielsen to maintain the lead.
It would’ve been the fourth one-goal game in a row for these Metropolitan Division foes if not for Sutter’s empty-netter with four seconds left. Barring a second playoff meeting in two years, the Pens and Isles are done for the year, with Pittsburgh winning the season series 3-1.
That’s unfortunate, because both sides’ comfort with high-tempo hockey often creates an entertaining spectacle. New York pushed ahead on goals by Michael Grabner and Brock Nelson in the opening 8:21, only to be countered by the tough-to-contain duo of Crosby and Kunitz.
The linemates took turns assisting on each other’s goals, with Kunitz burying his 25th at 9:32 and Crosby shoving in No. 27 less than two minutes later. Kunitz picked up his third point 5 1/2 minutes into the second, dropping the puck to Maatta off the rush and watching as the 19-year-old Finn majestically deked around Isles goalie Kevin Poulin for the go-ahead goal, his fifth.
If that goal was pretty on an individual level, the Penguins demonstrated their ability to function as a unit on the next score. With New York’s Matt Martin in the penalty box for hooking, Pittsburgh’s top-ranked power play flung the puck around the offensive zone for a solid minute, eventually leading to Letang’s 10th goal at 17:44 on a cross-rink pass from Crosby.
Josh Bailey netted a breakaway goal just 3:10 into the third to make it 5-4 Pittsburgh, but Malkin steered in his 14th from the left edge of the crease three minutes later, finishing Neal’s nifty pass. Kyle Okposo got credit for his 21st with 9:05 to play when Paul Martin inadvertently knocked the puck into his own net.
Pittsburgh will play its fourth game in six days Saturday night in Dallas. The puck will drop at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
Notes: New York star John Tavares, who entered the game seven points behind Crosby for the league’s scoring lead, earned his only point of the evening on Okposo’s goal. Crosby has 72 points while Canadian Olympic teammate Tavares is at 63…The Islanders outshot the Pens 34-29 and out-attempted them 63-53…Pittsburgh’s league-leading penalty kill denied three New York power play chances…The Pens won the season series with the Isles for the seventh straight time.