Penguins top Maple Leafs in shootout, 6-5


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TORONTO -- Maybe these two points will make a difference in mid-April.

Perhaps, they'll be what earns the Penguins home-ice advantage for a round or two in the Stanley Cup playoffs or gets them a more favorable matchup.

But on this night, in the minutes after their 6-5 shootout victory against Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, the talk was not of the impact beating the Maple Leafs might have in a month or so, but of what winning a game means for the Penguins right now.

Not because it raised their record to 37-21-6, or because it lifted them to within six points of Philadelphia, which is in first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.

No, it mattered so much because they had been in a 0-2-2 skid. Because they had lost their previous three one-goal decisions. Because earning two points can scrape away a lot of scar tissue that builds up on a team's psyche when it is struggling.

"It's huge for us right now, at this moment," center Max Talbot said. "It was nice to tie it [in the third period], but we wanted the win."

While this was not a game that will turn up in an instructional video -- fact is, both coaches might consider putting the tape through a shredder at the earlier opportunity -- the Penguins had to get a lift from scoring five goals in regulation for the first time since Jan. 12.

"We were able to score five goals," left winger Mike Rupp said. "And, for us, that's about four weeks' worth."

It had to be especially satisfying since Alex Kovalev, acquired from Ottawa Thursday, figured prominently in their outburst.

He scored an even-strength goal late in the first period and the only one by either team in the shootout, as he unleashed a shot that sailed over Toronto goalie James Reimer's glove, off the goalpost and in.

Kovalev also had at least one costly turnover, too, but if he can continue to produce goals in key situations, the blemishes in his game will be pretty easy to overlook.

"He's clutch," center Mark Letestu said.

Letestu, who had been out since he sustained a knee injury in a game-day skate in New York Feb. 1, returned to the Penguins' lineup, but right winger Tyler Kennedy and defenseman Paul Martin sat out the game.

Kennedy apparently was injured in the Penguins' 4-1 loss Friday at Carolina, while Martin sat out his fourth game in a row because of an unspecified injury sustained in Chicago a week ago.

Joffrey Lupul gave Toronto a 1-0 lead on a power play at 16:43 of the first, but Kovalev countered for the Penguins 46.8 seconds before the intermission.

Colby Armstrong put Toronto in front at 10:31 of the second by beating Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from in front of the net after getting a feed from Mike Brown. Letestu, though, responded on a power play at 16:00, using a Jordan Staal screen to beat Reimer from the top of the left circle.

Dustin Jeffrey, in his second game since missing six with an undisclosed injury, put the Penguins up, 3-2, with 16 seconds left in the period when he backhanded in a rebound for his fifth in 15 games.

The Penguins seemed to be in control at that point, but just 3 1/2 minutes into the third, they were behind again as a Kovalev turnover led to a Clarke MacArthur goal at 2:52, and Lupul converted on a three-on-one break 35 seconds later.

"We just maybe felt too confident," Kovalev said. "We just made a couple of bad mistakes, and it cost us."

But Talbot restored the Penguins' equilibrium with a short-handed goal at 6:12, stealing the puck from defenseman Dion Phaneuf and beating Reimer on a breakaway.

"It felt great," Talbot said. "It's been a while."

And after Phaneuf got that goal back at 7:27, Rupp beat Reimer from the right hash at 9:08 for what proved to be the final goal until Kovalev scored in the shootout.

Kovalev's shootout-deciding goal should be quite an ice-breaker for his new teammates, if one was needed, because the Penguins had slipped into a rut of losing games they were capable of winning.

"We've been close," Rupp said. "We've done a lot of good things. But that can only go so far, and so long.

"Eventually, you have to say, 'Hey, we've got to get two points.' And we found a way to do it tonight."


Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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