Penguins set NHL record by winning 4th consecutive shootout

Penguins 2, Panthers 1

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This is living dangerously, and the Penguins know it.

Frankly, it would be pretty tough not to.

Routinely having games stretch into overtime, let alone shootouts, is a high-risk way to operate, because defeat -- and perhaps a less attractive playoff spot -- is never more than one unfortunate bounce away.

That is how it is supposed to be, anyway, although it has been a while since any of that has gotten past the theoretical stage for the Penguins.

Their 2-1 decision against Florida Sunday at Consol Energy Center was their fourth consecutive shootout victory, an NHL record, and it followed what has become the standard storyline.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was unbeatable -- he has allowed one goal on nine attempts in the past three shootouts -- and left winger James Neal put the exclamation point on the victory by ringing up his third shootout-clinching goal in the past week.

The victory moved the Penguins (45-23-8) back to within two points of first-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins sit fourth in the conference, seven points ahead of fifth-place Tampa Bay.

They also are on the cusp of clinching no worse than fifth place in the East. Montreal, the New York Rangers and Buffalo, who currently rank sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively, all can finish with no more than 99 points.

And the Penguins got more than just a couple of points Sunday, as defenseman Brooks Orpik rejoined the lineup after missing 13 games because of a fractured right index finger. He logged 20 minutes, 54 seconds of ice time, which was enough to record a team-high four hits.

Orpik is, of course, just one on a long list of key players to miss extended portions of this season because of injuries. Some fairly prominent centers -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal -- are among the others who have done hard time in the trainer's room.

Fleury not only is one of the few Penguins players to stay healthy all season, but is the major reason the Penguins' game against Philadelphia at 7:08 p.m. Tuesday at Consol Energy Center will have genuine significance in the conference standings.

The miserable early weeks of Fleury's season, when he was 1-6 and had a goals-against average that looked like a bad mortgage rate, morphed into the finest run of his career.

Fleury is 33-12-5 in his past 50 starts, including an 11-game winning streak, and has established himself, in the eyes of his teammates, as a viable candidate for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL player "adjudged to be most valuable to his team."

"If you subtract [Fleury], with the season and the [injured] guys we've had, I don't think we'd be in the position we're in right now," left winger Mike Rupp said.

"He had a rough start to the season, and he turned it around. And he single-handedly has given us points in games. If you take him away from the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, we're looking a lot different."

The only goal Fleury allowed Sunday, on a Ryan Carter deflection, ended a shutout streak of 150 minutes, 14 seconds, the longest by an individual Penguins goalie.

Still, numbers aren't necessarily the best way to express Fleury's value. His save percentage of .920 ties for 11th place in the NHL rankings, and his 2.28 goals-against average places 20th.

"Teams that play more of a trap or defensive system, the goalies are probably going to have better stats," Orpik said. "But he constantly finds ways to win, and with the two big guys getting hurt, a lot of pressure was put on him.

"But the thing that impressed me the most was the way he responded to the first two or three weeks of the season. Much as you say you don't pay attention to what people are saying outside the locker room, guys are well aware of it, and I know he was well aware of it."

Much of what was said about Fleury last fall was scalding criticism; most of the rest was worse.

Nonetheless, he kept his composure and focus, and his teammates' confidence in him never was shaken. That faith has been rewarded with dozens of world-class performances, including one against the Panthers.

"He's been the backbone of our team and our most consistent performer," coach Dan Bylsma said. "And that has given our team the confidence to win hockey games no matter what our lineup is, no matter what the score is."

And no matter whether the game is in regulation, overtime or a shootout.

Dave Molinari: . First Published March 28, 2011 4:00 AM


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