Defenseman Matt Niskanen scored twice, Chris Kunitz broke a six-game drought with his 200th NHL goal and Sidney Crosby earned three assists as the Pittsburgh Penguins snapped a three-game winless streak with a 3-1 victory at Nashville on Tuesday.
Two close plays in the third period went the Penguins’ way, directly leading to their final two goals in the workmanlike win.
The game was tied at 1 early in the third with the Pens (41-16-4, 86 points) on the power play when a loose puck came bounding into their own zone. Sensing the Predators might get a breakaway chance, Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury roamed out to poke it away from the hustling Paul Gaustad.
Fleury was successful in that effort, eventually pushing the puck up ice to trigger an odd-man rush led by Crosby. Evgeni Malkin handed off to Niskanen for a one-timer from above the left circle that sailed past Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne at 7:29.
Rinne, making his first start since October because of a badly infected hip, thought he should’ve saved that one, but the 6-foot-5 Finn had no chance on Kunitz’ clinching goal with 2:55 to play.
Predators defenseman Shea Weber rang a trademark heavy shot off the crossbar just moments before Crosby created a turnover and centered for a wide-open Kunitz between the circles. Kunitz buried his 28th of the year to lock up the positive result.
Crosby should’ve picked up his fourth assist of the night in the final 20 seconds, but Tanner Glass hit the post on an empty-net attempt from point-blank range. Nevertheless, Glass made several key shot blocks in the game and No. 87 still boosted his league-leading point total to 83 in 61 games.
Crosby started the game’s first scoring play on the opening shift of the second period, zooming behind the Nashville net and setting up Niskanen in the right circle for a quick release that squirted through Rinne. Niskanen’s eighth goal of the season marked the first time in seven games the Pens had scored first.
The lead didn’t last long, however, as Patric Hornqvist rammed home his 12th of the year just 12 seconds later. Mike Fisher‘s seemingly harmless point shot bounded into a pileup in front of Fleury, and Hornqvist was the first to find the puck.
Malkin hit two posts on the night, while the desperate Predators (26-26-10, 62 points) can rue some close calls as well. Nashville entered the night six points out of the Western Conference playoff field.
The Penguins are guaranteed a playoff spot and most likely the Metropolitan Division title, but they had gone 0-1-2 in their previous three, allowing 13 goals in the process. Pittsburgh matched the usually-stingy Preds in defensive prowess; each team registered a meager 19 shots on target.
The Penguins next head to California for the second and final time this year, taking on the Sharks in San Jose on Thursday night.