RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sure, those 31 saves Marc-Andre Fleury made were important.
The Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory Friday night against Carolina at PNC Arena simply would not have been possible without them.
But Fleury's biggest contribution might have been an uncredited assist he earned with a split-second decision in the first minute of the extra period, for it allowed teammate James Neal to score the goal that ended the game.
Fleury had taken a shot from Hurricanes defenseman Andrej Sekara off the right collarbone/neck area 46 seconds into overtime and was visibly shaken up by it.
So much so that a referee was willing to stop play so that Fleury could be examined by a trainer. Or, at the very least, gather himself.
But Fleury was aware of what was developing in front of him, the way the Penguins were moving toward Carolina's end of the rink, and let the official know, quite emphatically, that there was no need for a whistle.
"I saw we had the puck," Fleury said. "So, I told him, 'I'm OK, I'm OK, I'm OK.' "
Whether Fleury -- who said Sekera's shot caused him to have a bit of trouble breathing -- actually was OK at that point isn't clear, but he surely felt much better a few seconds later, when Neal took a pass from Jussi Jokinen and beat Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters from the left hash to give the Penguins (28-11-1) their eighth victory in the past nine games.
It was Neal's fifth shot of the game -- no teammate managed more than two -- and the only one he managed to get past Peters, who he describes as "one of my best friends."
"He had my number all night," Neal said. "Luckily, I found one there at the end."
Neal spent a significant portion of the evening on the right side with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, filling the void created by Pascal Dupuis' knee injury.
Joe Vitale got considerable work in that spot, too, and general manager Ray Shero said after the game he has no immediate plans to explore trades to bring in a full-time replacement for Dupuis.
"The good news is, [Dupuis' injury] didn't happen after the trade deadline, so we'll have to see what that brings us," he said. "It's just another injury we have to deal with.
"We'll just have to evaluate as we go. We have lots of guys out. At some point in the next four to six weeks, we'll get guys like [Jayson] Megna and [Beau] Bennett back, some younger players.
"We'll see what happens down the line here, but there's nothing imminent in that regard."
Unlike Neal, Vitale didn't score a goal, but he did help to make an important one possible.
With the score tied, 2-2, in the third period, Vitale went to the net -- hardly the only time he did that -- and set a screen that made it impossible for Peters to get a good look at Deryk Engelland's shot from the right side.
The puck ended up in the net and would have been the winner if Drayson Bowman of the Hurricanes hadn't banked in a shot off Fleury's stick at 17:31 of the third to force overtime.
Engelland said that, in light of Neal's goal, he wasn't upset to lose the winning goal -- "We got it," he said. "That's all that matters" -- and Neal praised the way his teammates rebounded after Bowman's potentially deflating goal.
"That's where our team has matured and changed," he said. "I think we regrouped and didn't let it bother us, and we came right back and got one. I like the way we responded."
Truth be told, aside from the outcome and a few individual performances, there wasn't all that much for the Penguins to like about this game.
Their lineup was bolstered a bit -- defenseman Brooks Orpik and winger Tanner Glass returned from extended absences due to injuries and Engelland was back after serving a five-game suspension -- but they still looked like a team that was missing some key personnel and coming off a three-day break.
Which, of course, they were.
"I think it's in the coach's manual that you try to not look too hard at the game after the Christmas break," coach Dan Bylsma said.
"We gave them a lot of opportunities with the passes that we made to them in the first period. Luckily, we were able to stay in the game and bounce back."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG
First Published December 27, 2013 9:43 PM