By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – It wasn’t quite the lopsided blowout the scoreboard indicated, but it was a workmanlike effort from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who took down a red-hot San Jose Sharks team that is one of the best in the Western Conference and primed to make a run at the Stanley Cup in the spring.
Chris Kunitz scored twice, his 15th and 16th of the year, while captain Sidney Crosby, playing in his 500th career game, provided three assists as an early second-period eruption helped the opportunistic Penguins take down the Sharks, 5-1, Thursday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a win,” Crosby said. “It doesn’t guarantee anything for the rest of the year. I think our worth ethic and execution was on and we saw some good results.”
Defenseman Kris Letang netted his sixth, Jayson Megna his third, and Pascal Dupuis scored his fourth for the streaking Penguins, who won a season-best fifth straight and are unbeaten in their last six games.
The Penguins were without the NHL’s second-leading scorer Evgeni Malkin, who was ruled out early Thursday with a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day. Dupuis also left early with a lower body injury and is being evaluated.
Malkin, who leads the league with 30 assists, is riding a nine-game scoring streak, tallying 19 points during that span, part of a torrid stretch that earned the Penguins’ superstar the NHL’s No. 2 star award for the month of November.
“No one can replace (Malkin), but we have guys in the lineup that are willing and able to step up and try to help contribute in any way they can,” Megna said.
The Penguins, 16-1 when scoring first, were outshot 24-15 in the second, but exploded for four goals in seven-and-a-half minutes during an early second-period eruption that proved to be just enough to fend off the hungry Sharks, who swarmed the Pittsburgh zone and controlled the play despite trailing.
Marc-Andre Fleury was the difference, making a season-best 44 saves to win his third straight and keep his team ahead by a wide margin.
“Even though it was a big score, it didn’t feel like it out there,” Crosby said. “I think (Fleury) deserves a lot of credit for how he played. Over 40 shots today… they had some good chances, they’re a good team, and he’s a big part of why we won.”
Letang effectively ended it 3:30 into the third, fluttering a half-cocked shot past Alex Stalock, who relieved Antti Niemi after two periods. Tomas Hertl had the lone goal for the Sharks, his 14th of the season.
It was a matchup of two of the league’s best and hottest teams as the Sharks lead the lead in goal differential, winning six straight before Thursday and losing for just the fourth time in regulation.
“They’ve been pretty hot lately and they only have three losses all season,” Fleury said. “It was a good challenge for us and I think we responded.”
The Sharks dominated the Penguins the past 16 years, going 14-1-1 with a tie in 16 games. San Jose was 8-0-1 in the series since Pittsburgh’s 4-1 victory Nov. 23, 2002, winning the most recent meeting, 4-3, in a shootout Nov. 3, 2011. Pittsburgh’s previous win against San Jose came Feb. 11, 2009, the final win of the Michael Therrien era.
The Penguins and Sharks, who hadn’t visited Pittsburgh since Feb. 23, 2011, will see more of one another in the coming years as Eastern and Western Conference teams play on each other’s home ice once a season thanks to the league’s divisional realignment.
“I think we try to do the best we can and prepare, and when you’re playing a new team so-to-speak, that you don’t see that often, I think you probably prepare a little more than usual,” Crosby said.
Crosby played in his 500th game almost three years to the date since he appeared in his 400th contest Dec. 6, 2010. He would’ve reached the milestone sooner, but Crosby, the 14th player in franchise history to achieve the feat, has been sidelined by concussion, neck, and jaw injuries, limiting him to 99 regular-season games since then.
He’s looked to have recaptured his old form, winning the Ted Lindsay Award last year as the league’s most outstanding player, as voted on by his peers, and leads the league with 15 goals and 41 points.
The Penguins turned it on after a scoreless opening period, exploding for four goals in 7:30 to quickly build a 4-0 lead.
Dupuis started it 27 seconds into the period, getting a piece of Brooks Orpiks’ harmless looking shot from the point that found its way to the top left corner, past Niemi.
Megna made it a two-goal game two minutes later, taking advantage of a Sharks’ turnover at the blueline by rifling a snap shot past Niemi during a 3-on-1.
Fleury made a series of dazzling saves during an ensuing Sharks power play, allowing the Penguins to make it a three-goal game.
Kunitz picked up the rebound from a Crosby shot and shoveled a backhander past a sprawled Niemi, giving the Penguins a 3-0 advantage.
The NHL’s top power play struck soon after as Kunitz netted his 16th of the season, and second of the game, making it 4-0 just 14 seconds after John McCarthy was whistled for tripping.
Hertl scored his 14th of the season for the Sharks, cracking the scoreboard and stopping the barrage less than two minutes later, but it was too late.
“It’s a good measuring stick and it’s good to get rewarded, but it’s something we have to build off of,” Crosby said.
NOTES: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has recorded a win against every NHL team… The Penguins are 7-1 when they are outshot and 11-0 when scoring four or more goals… Tyler Kennedy, an integral part of the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup championship, returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since an offseason trade sent him to San Jose. He received a standing ovation from the standing-room-only sellout crowd during a first-period television timeout… Penguins F Chuck Kobasew returned to the lineup after missing 17 games with a lower-body injury.