By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins, after enduring arguably their lowest point of the season, appear to be back on track after an inspired weekend of play.
Stellar goaltending and a timely goal from a star forward continued to push the Penguins in the right direction.
Marc-Andre Fleury shut the door through two periods and the Penguins came through with a pair of goals 45 seconds apart, the first from Evgeni Malkin, leading to a 5-1 win against the Florida Panthers Sunday at Consol Energy Center.
“They’re a team battling to make the playoffs,” Fleury said. “We knew they were going to come out hard and they did.
“From there, I tried to keep the team in the game and keep it close. We got some big goals, so I could relax a little.”
Malkin and Patric Hornqvist both netted two goals and an assist, their 24th and 18th goals, respectively, while Paul Martin scored his third for the Penguins, who won their second straight and moved within three points of the Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders after dropping four of their previous six games.
Fleury was the reason, stopping 34 of 35 shots for his 27th win of the season. He was perfect until Scottie Upshall ended the shutout bid with less than eight minutes to play for the Panthers’ lone goal.
By that time it was too late.
Fleury kept the Panthers off the board, notably with Pittsburgh clinging to a one-goal margin through the majority of the first two periods and Florida pressing for the tie, holding a near-two-to-one margin in shots.
“Fleury was the difference in the first part of the game,” Panthers’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “I thought we played a good 40 minutes, but it’s tough to lose like that.”
The Penguins’ much-maligned power play got into the act for the second straight game, too, after failing to score through the first nine games and 20 chances of the month. Pittsburgh is now 21-3-1, including a 12-2 mark at home, when scoring a power-play goal.
“Our power play is starting to look dangerous,” Penguins’ coach Mike Johnston said. “Those are positive signs.”
The Penguins wanted to build on an encouraging showing the previous night at St. Louis, ending a three-game skid and handling one of the top teams in the Western Conference with a two-goal victory. They also hoped to get back on track at home after totaling just three wins in their previous 10 games entering Sunday. The Penguins were impressive in those wins, totaling 16 goals, but struggled offensively with just nine goals in seven defeats.
Not on Sunday against Florida, a team the Penguins now defeated 10 of the last 11 times in Pittsburgh.
“The standings are so close,” Fleury said. “We got away with four points, so it was a good weekend.”
This one came thanks to Fleury.
The 30-year-old is playing some of the best hockey of his 11-year career. He ranks top-10 in the league in wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts, allowing just seven goals in his last seven starts. Fleury has also allowed just two even-strength goals in February, a span of nearly 400 minutes at 381:40.
“He was the MVP of the game…he’s the MVP of this season,” Malkin said of Fleury. “He gave us a chance to win.”
The Panthers nearly doubled up the Penguins in shots through two periods — 16-8 in the first and 27-16 heading into the third — but Pittsburgh, through Fleury’s sublime play, held a 2-0 advantage.
Hornqvist opened the scoring at 9:18 of the first period.
Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang forced Tomas Kopecky into a turnover in the corner and centered to Hornqvist, who jammed a shot behind Panthers’ goaltender Al Montoya.
Another turnover in the final 30 seconds led to the Penguins’ second goal.
Malkin converted the center-ice turnover, swooping into the zone and lifting a backhander through Montoya’s gaping five hole with 26.6 seconds left in the period.
Martin scored 19 seconds into the third period to put it away.
A streaking Martin took a cross-ice, blueline feed from Sidney Crosby and wristed a shot over Montoya’s shoulder at the faceoff dot.
“The early goal in the third by (Martin) was good,” Fleury said. “From there on, everything went pretty well for us.”
Hornqvist scored his second less than four minutes later on the power play.
Crosby, from behind the net, centered to Hornqvist, who chopped a second-chance attempt past Montoya for the Penguins’ fourth goal.
Montoya didn’t have a chance on Malkin’s rising backhander with 10:54 to play, giving the Pens a 5-0 lead and ending the weekend with another win.
“We have to be satisfied with the way we played over the last two games as a group,” Martin said. “I don’t think we can be comfortable because we still have a lot of hockey left and a lot of improvement. I think it was good to see our special teams do well, which is promising, so hopefully we can build off that.”
NOTES: Letang is tied with Calgary’s Mark Giordano for the league lead in points among NHL defensemen…Malkin recorded two-plus points in a game for the first time since Nov. 26…Pittsburgh has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of the last 10 games…The Penguins scored consecutive power play goals for the first time since a four-game streak from Jan. 10-18.