Penguins cut Rangers' lead to 4 with win vs. Panthers

Neal, Malkin shootout goals nail Florida

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The Penguins will tell you that there is nothing intentional about it, that they don't enter games with the idea of being behind after 40 minutes.

Makes perfect sense, of course, and there's no reason to disbelieve them.

It does, however, lead to one fairly obvious question: Why don't they?

OK, maybe having to overcome third-period deficits isn't a conventional path to success in the NHL, but most teams don't have the kind of resilience the Penguins have shown throughout this season.

Their 2-1 shootout victory Friday night against Florida at Consol Energy Center was the eighth time they've taken two points out of a game they trailed after two periods, tying Tampa Bay for the most such victories in the league in 2011-12.

The Penguins (41-21-5), who own their second eight-game winning streak this season, have won almost a third of the games in which they've been behind at the second intermission. And with 15 games remaining, there's reason to think they might improve their winning percentage in those situations before the playoffs arrive.

"We always seem to come back," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Whatever works, you know?"

Part of the reason for that is the consistently excellent work they've been getting from Fleury, who stopped 28 of 29 shots during regulation and overtime, then denied Wojtek Wolski and Mikael Samuelsson in the shootout.

"We've got to give a lot of credit to our goaltender, who makes a lot of key saves and keeps us in the hockey game long enough for us to make a comeback," center Jordan Staal said.

Florida is the 75th opponent Fleury has held to one goal during his NHL career. He also has 22 shutouts.

The victory moved the Penguins to within four points of the first-place New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference.

The two points they earned were of paramount importance to the Penguins, of course, but a secondary benefit is that the shootout-deciding goal was scored by right winger James Neal. He's a 30-goal man who has gone nine games without a goal in regulation or overtime, his longest-such drought of the season.

Sticking a shot under the crossbar behind Panthers goalie Jose Theodore during Round 1 of the shootout doesn't necessarily mean that Neal's slump is over, but it can only be a boost for his confidence.

"It feels good," Neal said. "I had some shots tonight. I just need to stay around the net more and, hopefully, get a dirty one here [against Boston] on Sunday. It's not something I'm thinking about."

Neal's goal put the Penguins in front to stay in the shootout, and the one Evgeni Malkin -- who has been held without a point in consecutive home games for the first time since Nov. 27-Dec. 2, 2010 -- scored during the second round allowed Fleury to lock up the victory by thwarting Samuelsson.

"They're a skilled team," Theodore said. "You saw in the shootout, when these guys have time, they're going to pick corners and that's exactly what they did."

Penguins shooters must not have had much time during the 65 minutes that preceded the shootout, however, because Theodore rejected all but one of 34 pucks they threw at him.

Nothing unusual about his performance, though. Even with the loss, Theodore's career record against them is 20-5-4.

The only goal he gave up before the shootout came at 2:56 of the third, when Steve Sullivan pulled in a pass from Jordan Staal, moved down the left side and beat Theodore with a backhander from the inner edge of the circle.

"I kind of knew where [Sullivan] was going to be," Staal said. "When I looked up, I saw he had some good speed, so I just tried to get it out there to him as fast as I could, and he did the rest."

Staal's assist stretched his scoring streak to a career-best seven games.

Sullivan's goal countered the only one the Panthers generated. Tomas Fleischmann got it at 7:17 of the second period, collecting the carom of a Wolski shot that bounced off the back boards and flipped it into an empty net from the right side of the crease.

"I thought [Wolski's rebound] was going to come back the same way, but it bounced to the other side [of the net]," Fleury said.

Although that goal gave the Panthers a lead, it didn't fluster the Penguins, who have an obvious belief in their ability to rally late.

"We're resilient," Sullivan said.

"We do have confidence in our group that we can come back. ... I don't think it was our best game, but we found a way."

Just as they have so many times this season.

First Published March 10, 2012 5:00 AM


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