James Neal ends drought in OT win for Penguins



They were, the Penguins insisted, never worried.

Probably shouldn't have been, either.

Not even when their power play repeatedly betrayed them last weekend in a home-and-home series against Philadelphia.

Not even when it let them down again in overtime Thursday, in what became a loss in Detroit.

No, they figured it was inevitable that their power play -- the most efficient in the NHL for much of this season -- would resume meshing the way it had for most of the winter, and would again be a difference-maker for them.

In a good way.

Which it was in a 4-3 overtime victory against Tampa Bay Saturday at Consol Energy Center, scoring on three of six chances.

The final one of those goals came at 1:27 of overtime, when James Neal took a feed from Evgeni Malkin and launched a shot over the right shoulder of Lightning goalie Anders Lindback.

"We put a lot of emphasis on our [power play]," Neal said. "We want to be the best."

And it was, at least temporarily. The rampage against Tampa Bay pushed the Penguins' conversion rate to 24.6 percent; Washington, which played Saturday night at San Jose, ranked second at 23.9.

Neal's game-winner was his 23rd goal this season, but his first in eight games.

His frustration at being unable to find the net was understandable and, to his teammates, quite obvious.

Scouting report
 
Matchup:Penguins vs. St. Louis Blues, 1:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.

TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Ryan Miller for Blues.

Penguins: Are 9-4 in second of back-to-back games. … Are 19-2-2 in past 23 home games. … Matt Niskanen has a six-game points streak at home (1 goal, 5 assists).

Blues: Are 4-5-1 in second of back-to-back games, with 3 of 4 wins coming in OT or SO. … 4-1 loss Saturday at Philadelphia gave them back-to-back regulation losses for just fourth time. … David Backes has at least five hits in six games in a row.

Hidden stat: Penguins have played host to St. Louis just three times since 2003-04, going 1-1-1.

"He was so mad," said Malkin, who is Neal's center. "He had lots of scoring chances, but didn't score. It was a big goal for him."

Malkin was directly involved in all four Penguins goals, setting up the first and last and scoring the two in between.

It was the 19th four-point game of his career -- three of the past six have come against the Lightning -- and a reminder of just how dominant he can be.

"He had the puck all night," said Sidney Crosby, who scored the Penguins' first goal and assisted on Neal's. "He drew a lot of penalties, generated a lot of chances.

"You can't stop him when he's going like that. I wouldn't want to be playing against him."

Crosby didn't have to worry about drawing that duty, of course, but he and his teammates did have to contend with Lightning center Steven Stamkos, one of the game's elite offensive talents.

Stamkos had been held without a point in five of his first nine games back after recovering from a broken right leg but against the Penguins, gave scant indication that he's returning from an extended layoff.

"Didn't look like a guy who's missed as much time as he did," Crosby said. "He was dangerous out there, generated a lot for them."

Stamkos scored the Lightning's second goal, when he punched a rebound between the legs of goalie Jeff Zatkoff at 8:17 of the second period, but his assist on Valtteri Filppula's power-play goal at 16:44 of the opening period was even more striking.

Setting up Stamkos for slap shots from near the left dot is the main objective of the Lightning's power play, so no one was surprised when point man Victor Hedman put the puck on his stick there.

"I thought that on that first one, he was ready to hammer it," Zatkoff said.

So did just about everyone else in the building.

Instead, Stamkos slid a cross-ice feed to Filppula, who scored on an uncontested shot from the right side.

Ultimately, though, Stamkos could not offset his team's penchant for taking penalties, including a too-many-men call at 1:11 of overtime that made Neal's game-winner possible.

"You can't take six penalties against them," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "That's the bottom line.

"They've got the best [power play] in the game. You watch the five guys they roll out there, it's not just class. It's world-class."

The same can't be said for Tampa Bay's penalty-killing, which ranks in the bottom-quarter of the league.

What's more, the Penguins routinely abuse the Lightning's penalty-killers, scoring on 10 of 20 power plays in their past four meetings.

Of course, even the most accomplished short-handed unit might not have prevented the Penguins from busting out of their 1-for-19 slump.

"We can't score every game, of course," Malkin said. "[Saturday], we played so much better."

Just as they knew they would. Even if they didn't know when.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


First Published March 22, 2014 3:41 PM

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