For the second time in eight days, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ newly-configured top line almost singlehandedly delivered a victory.
Crosby scored a pair of goals and added an assist to push his league-leading point total to 91, while Stempniak dented the twine for his first goal since being acquired from Calgary earlier this month. Stempniak accompanied his goal with a pair of helpers, and Kunitz picked up two points (goal, assist) in his return from a bruised ankle.
Last Monday, Pittsburgh’s top line accounted for seven points in a 3-2 win over the Capitals. Kunitz’ injury the following night broke up that group during back-to-back losses to the Flyers, but it’s clear they are showing some serious cohesion after just a few games together.
Crosby stood out in particular. His burst through the neutral zone was especially deadly Tuesday, as the Pens captain looked much fresher than he has in recent memory.
Jeff Zatkoff got the surprise start for the Penguins, making 32 saves to hold off a hard-working Dallas team trying to get back into the Western Conference playoff field. Pittsburgh (45-19-4, 94 points) remains five points behind Boston for first in the East, but improved to 5-4-1 since the Olympic break.
Tyler Seguin has powered the Dallas offense this season; the young center scored his 31st of the season to tie the game in the first period before the Pens rattled off four straight goals. The Stars (32-25-11, 75 points) have lost three in a row to fall two points behind Phoenix for the West’s final wild-card spot.
Dallas outshot Pittsburgh 33-32 for the game, but the Pens had a large advantage in play early on. They had the first six scoring chances at Consol Energy Center, including Crosby’s first goal of the night at 4:17, forced by a hard forecheck from Craig Adams.
Seguin deflected a point shot under Zatkoff at 12:30, but Kunitz shoveled home the rebound of Stempniak’s shot from the slot to restore Pittsburgh’s one-goal lead with 4:35 left in the period.
The Stars had their opportunities to tie, but they couldn’t squeeze a second goal behind Zatkoff, who followed up his relief appearance Sunday with one of the best performances of his rookie year. Stempniak validated the sharp goaltending by finishing Kunitz’ feed from the front lip of the crease 13 minutes into the second period.
The goal was Stempniak’s ninth of the season and fifth point as a Penguin. He added his sixth point in black and Vegas gold 1:56 into the third, when he redirected Matt Niskanen‘s shot to Crosby at the doorstep for the captain’s team-leading 33rd goal of the year.
The Stars desperately tried to get back in the game, but their aggression backfired when Brandon Sutter buried a backhand breakaway chance with the Penguins shorthanded midway through the third. Sutter’s pretty tally gave him 11 on the season – including three while killing a penalty.
Pittsburgh heads to Detroit to face the Red Wings on Thursday night.
Notes: James Neal made his return from a concussion, firing two shots on goal in 17:06 of ice time…Each team went 0 for 3 on the power play…Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen stopped 27 shots in his first game back from a head injury…Crosby led all skaters with seven shots despite playing just 16:13…Evgeni Malkin went scoreless for the third straight outing despite generating good chances with Neal and Jussi Jokinen.