By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – Another goal from another unlikely source helped move the Pittsburgh Penguins to the top of the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Fourth-liner Joe Vitale’s first goal of the season in the final minute of the opening period was good enough to help the streaking Pittsburgh Penguins win their ninth straight game, holding off the Boston Bruins for a 2-1 victory Sunday afternoon in front of the largest hockey crowd in Consol Energy Center history.
“They’re pretty disciplined defensively, and they’re comfortable playing tight games,” Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby said. “If we can get a lead and put some pressure on them, maybe get them out of that a little bit, it’s to our advantage.”
It certainly worked in the Penguins’ favor Sunday. Crosby also netted his 13th goal of the season for an NHL-best 48 points as the Atlantic Division-leading Penguins – winners of six straight against the Bruins — leap-frogged the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Eastern Conference.
The conference lead was on the line Sunday as the Bruins, with 41 points, also had the opportunity to jump ahead of the Canadiens, but came up short as the Penguins defeated Boston for the second time in less than a week.
“It took our best two nights to beat them twice here,” Pens’ defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It’s one of those games you mark off as a big challenge.”
Tyler Seguin scored the lone goal for the Bruins in the first period. He nearly had another one, but just missed tying the game on a wrap-around try late in the third.
Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang – the NHL leader in points among blueliners — left the game after the first period with a lower body injury and did not return. The Penguins spent the final two periods playing with five defensemen.
It isn’t good news for the Penguins, still without reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin, who sat out for the ninth time in 12 games, including the past five, with an undisclosed upper body injury.
“It’s pretty tough because those are two guys that we depend on pretty heavily,” Crosby said. “Guys look at it as an opportunity to step up and fill a different role. It’s not something we want to deal with, but if that’s the case, we have to find a way to keep going and playing well.”
It wasn’t much better for Boston, which lost David Krejci late in the third period after he took a slap shot to the knee from teammate Johnny Boychuk. The Bruins’ center couldn’t put any weight on his knee and was helped from the ice by teammates.
Penguins’ goaltender Tomas Vokoun made 31 saves for his fourth straight victory, giving starter Marc-Andre Fleury a day off 24 hours after after the NHL wins leader established a new franchise record with his 23rd career shutout during a 3-0 victory against the New York Rangers.
The Bruins won five of their last six games entering Sunday’s tilt, their only loss coming against the Penguins just five days ago.
Boston led, 2-0, with seven minutes to play last Tuesday at Consol Energy Center, but a goal by Chris Kunitz and two from Brandon Sutter gave the Penguins an improbable come-from-behind victory.
Tuukka Rask, Boston’s starter, who did not play during the Penguins’ comeback win on Tuesday, stopped 16 shots Sunday.
The one Rask couldn’t get to turned out to be Vitale’s game-winner, and first since Feb. 26, 2012, against Columbus, a span of 38 games.
Rask had trouble gloving a harmless-looking Craig Adam wrist shot from the point, and Vitale pounced on the rebound, flipping the puck over Rask’s pad to make it 2-1.
“(Joe) went to the net hard,” Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma said. “It was a great play, a great goal, and a big goal for our team.
“It was great to see Joe going to the cage like that and getting rewarded with a big goal.”
Prior to Sunday, the Penguins, for the first time all season, went back-to-back games without getting a goal from Crosby, Kunitz, or James Neal — the team’s top three scorers. The highest scoring team in the NHL still managed to get two wins thanks to three goals from Pascal Dupuis, in addition to goals by Craig Adams, Tyler Kennedy and Beau Bennett.
“That’s what we need in order to have success and we’ve been getting that lately,” Crosby said. “It’s been different guys that step up in every game. Our depth is a big part of our success and we need to continue to show that.”
The Penguins are also well aware that they may have to go through Boston to win the Eastern Conference.
The games between the two teams this week resembled a tight-checking, defensive playoff atmosphere.
That defensive-style of hockey may not have benefitted Pittsburgh several weeks ago, but the once-free-wheeling Penguins appear to have adjusted their carefree ways, allowing just five goals in their last five games.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen a couple months from now, but every time we play them, it’s always an intense game,” Orpik said.
It also got testy at times, like during a stoppage in play when Bruins’ forward Milan Lucic punched Pens’ forward James Neal in the face.
“Those guys despise playing against (Neal),” Orpik said. “I think that was carry over from last game.”
Crosby gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with his 13th of the season midway through the first period.
He nearly did it a shift earlier, splitting Bruins’ defenseman Zdeno Chara and Boychuk, his partner, but the Penguins’ captain was denied after a right pad save by Rask.
Rask didn’t have a chance on Crosby’s next shot.
Kunitz, after taking a behind-the-net feed from Dupuis, sent a one-touch pass to Crosby, who roofed a shot past an out-of-position Rask. It was the 13th straight game the Penguins got a goal from their top line.
“I had a lot of net to look at,” Crosby said. “It was a good way to start.”
Seguin tied it later in the period with his 10th of the season.
Boychuk’s shot from the point hit Patrice Bergeron in front and bounced right to Seguin, who wristed the puck into a partially empty net.
Vitale’s goal in the final minute of the first period gave the Penguins the lead for good.
“You have to play a hard, patient game, and I think that was the case,” Bylsma said. “It’s a tough, physical game against a big team, and I think you get up for that kind of a game.”
NOTES: The Penguins, in addition to winning their ninth consecutive game, also won their eighth straight at home…Pittsburgh was limited to less than 20 shots for the first time in 308 games. The last time the Penguins were held to fewer than 20 shots came Jan. 30, 2009 at New Jersey when they registered 16…The Penguins have killed off 11 of their last 12 penalties.
****Dan Scifo is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Latrobe Bulletin and has recently started covering games for the Associated Press.