By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
The injury-riddled Pittsburgh Penguins welcomed several familiar faces back to the lineup Monday night and looked to keep a red-hot, franchise-record home winning streak in tact.
The struggling Florida Panthers didn’t care.
Drew Shore scored twice and Dimitry Kulikov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Shawn Matthias added third-period tallies as the Florida Panthers snapped the Penguins’ franchise-record home winning streak with a 5-1 victory Monday at Consol Energy Center.
“We weren’t good defensively, we weren’t good with our execution and puck management and they turned it back into offensive chances and opportunities and beat us in every area of the game,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said.
Pittsburgh, the closest it has been to a full, healthy lineup all season, had won 13 straight home games, its last loss a 2-1 setback against Philadelphia on Nov. 13. The Penguins, who hadn’t lost in regulation in six games, also carried an eight-game winning streak against the Panthers as Florida’s last win in Pittsburgh was a 6-1 victory Jan. 3, 2009.
“It’s nice we got the win here,” Huberdeau said. “It’s a hard barn to play in against a good team.”
Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL with 68 points, also saw his 17-game home point streak snapped. It was the second-longest streak of his career as Crosby, who was recently named captain of the Canadian Olympic team, registered a point in 22 of 23 home games before Monday.
“We have to find a way to put 60 minutes together, and I don’t know if we put 10 minutes together,” Crosby said.
The Penguins played just their third game this season with a healthy, intact defense corps as defenseman Paul Martin returned, playing alongside fellow U.S. Olympian Brooks Orpik, after missing 23 games with a broken tibia. Jayson Megna played for the first time in 13 games after he was out with a lower-body injury, and Chuck Kobasew returned after missing six games, playing on the top line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. James Neal was also back after missing Wednesday’s game against Washington with an upper body injury.
“We’re assimilating players back into our lineup. We’re getting players that have been out for periods of time back, but that’s not a new challenge for this group,” Bylsma said.
Pittsburgh played for just the second time in a nine-day stretch, the four-day break between games its longest of the season.
The layoff certainly showed.
“We should be rested and ready to go,” Crosby said. “There aren’t any excuses, to be honest. You can’t play a hockey game like that.”
They’ll have plenty of opportunities to rebound from Monday’s ugly loss. The Pens, starting Monday with Florida, began a stretch of 10 games in 19 days before the upcoming Olympic break. They host Montreal on Wednesday (7 p.m.) at Consol Energy Center before finishing the week with two road games at the New York Islanders and Dallas.
“Today was the first game of the last 10 before the break and we’re looking at these next 10 as a challenge,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins rallied for a 4-3 win against the Washington Capitals last Wednesday in a game that saw Pittsburgh lead for just 1:54 as Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta each had a goal and an assist, both scoring in the final 8:25 for the victory.
They couldn’t do it on Monday against a struggling Panthers’ team thats’ 15th of 16 Eastern Conference teams with 43 points.
“I think tonight, throughout our group, we were just awful,” Penguins’ defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Bad execution, bad work ethic…just weren’t hungry enough to win a loose puck battle. They came in here and beat the crap out of us tonight.”
The Panthers, with eight goals in their last six games, have struggled mightily, going zero for their last 35 in their last 10-plus games, including an 0-for-3 stretch on Monday.
They didn’t need their power play against the Penguins.
Florida, one for 42 on the power play in its last 12-plus road games, got a jolt from an impressive penalty kill that has killed the last 27 short-handed situations in 10-plus games.
“Tonight, everything just clicked for us,” said Panthers’ goaltender Scott Clemmensen. “The penalty kill was excellent…got a short-handed goal…it took everyone.”
Midway through the opening period, Florida’s Sean Bergenheim hit the post from in tight to the right of Pens’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who alertly covered the puck before it could trickle across the goal-line.
Shore made sure not to miss later in the period.
Clemmensen, with teammate Tom Gilbert off for high-sticking, stopped Evgeni Malkin and sent a quick outlet pass to Shore, who took the play the other way on a 2-on-1. Shore, instead of passing across, took the shot himself, snapping a sharp wrister to Fleury’s short side, giving Florida a 1-0 lead with a short-handed goal.
The Panthers couldn’t convert on three power-play opportunities midway through the second, but made it 2-0 several minutes after one of the Penguins’ penalties expired.
Shore netted his second of the night, quickly one-timing a behind-the-net feed from Jesse Winchester past Fleury.
Kulikov made it a 3-0 game just 1:17 into the third period.
Winchester dumped a puck in from the blue line that took an odd bounce off the end boards and trickled in front of the net. Kulikov beat Martin to the loose puck in front of the crease, slipping a backhander behind Fleury.
Frustration boiled over about a minute later when Crosby and Mike Weaver tangled in front of Clemmensen, each earning two minute penalties for roughing.
Niskanen scored soon after, making it 3-1 when he blasted a slapper from the left point that just got past Clemmensen. The goal came seconds after Clemmensen denied Malkin from the top of the crease.
That was all the Penguins could muster against the Panthers.
Huberdeau iced it, scoring with 6:10 left in the game.
The goal, which came after a pileup in front of the net, needed a lengthy video review to determine if the puck had crossed the line.
Matthias’s goal 12 seconds after play resumed needed no review, wristing a shot to the short side of Fleury after a faceoff win.
“It’s uncharacteristic for our team to lay an egg like that,” Niskanen said. “We’ll have some bad nights where we make mistakes, and our decision making is off, but since I’ve been here the compete and work ethic has always been at a premium.
“We have to recognize that it was awful today and get ready for a real hard-nosed game Wednesday.”
NOTES: Penguins forward Craig Adams played in his 255th regular season game, dating back to Oct. 18, 2010, moving past Malkin and into sole possession of fourth place on the team’s consecutive games played list.