The Pittsburgh Penguins played their sixth consecutive one-goal game Friday night in Columbus.
For a change, they came away with the victory.
The game was scoreless until Kunitz and Bennett connected within a 47-second span midway through the final frame, putting the first-place Pens (47-22-5, 99 points) ahead by a deuce. But the playoff-hungry Jackets struck back with 3:06 remaining when James Wisniewski scored a power-play goal.
That led to a frantic final minute, with Columbus (37-30-6, 80 points) pushing for the late equalizer with goalie Curtis McElhinney on the bench for an extra attacker. The Jackets, who remained in a four-way tie for the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots, couldn’t beat Fleury a second time, giving the visiting Penguins a five-game sweep in the season series.
Pittsburgh had dropped consecutive home games to West foes St. Louis (1-0), Phoenix (3-2) and Los Angeles (3-2) this week, so prevailing in a tight matchup was a welcome change. Prior to their skid, the Penguins beat Tampa Bay 4-3 in overtime and lost an extra-time game in Detroit 5-4.
The goaltenders dueled to a scoreless tie through 40 minutes Friday, with Kunitz breaking the deadlock 10:35 into the third. He took a lateral pass from Sidney Crosby and whipped his 34th goal of the season under McElhinney’s glove from the left circle.
Bennett, returning from a hand/wrist injury that sidelined him for more than four months, sniped his second goal of his second NHL year while leading a 2-on-1 rush. The Jackets got caught too far up ice, giving Bennett a chance to walk to the right faceoff dot before firing.
The struggling Penguins penalty kill survived Columbus’ first three opportunities of the night, but it couldn’t exterminate Kunitz’s tripping penalty at 15:01. Wisniewski hammered a signature slapper from the top of the right circle through a screen and past Fleury’s glove hand to make things interesting.
Each side generated numerous chances to break the ice in the opening two periods, but a combination of great goaltending and poor fortune kept the score 0-0 until the latter stages. Fleury was especially sharp with his glove in earning his first victory since March 11; he had been winless in his previous five starts.
Like every game the Pens have ever played in Ohio’s capital city, the crowd was split about 50-50 between Pittsburgh and Columbus fans – making for a highly-charged atmosphere. The regulation loss was especially painful for the Jackets, who missed a chance to create separation between themselves and the Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Capitals, all of whom have 80 points, too.
The Pens wrap up their March schedule Sunday night when Chicago comes to Pittsburgh for an evening faceoff.
Notes: Although it has been all but assured for months, the Penguins clinched their eighth consecutive playoff berth…Pittsburgh’s league-best power play went 0 for 4 despite several excellent opportunities in the first period…Marcel Goc missed the game with a lower-body injury sustained Thursday and will likely be out 2-3 weeks…Evgeni Malkin sat out his third game in a row with a hairline fracture in his foot.