Jussi Jokinen stopped short of insisting that NHL officials cram 18,620 names into one of the tiny slots marked "assist" on the score sheet from the Penguins shootout win Wednesday night against Detroit.
But the Penguins forward credited the 325th sellout crowd in a row at Consol Energy Center for helping him score a go-ahead goal in the third period.
Officially, defenseman Matt Niskanen got the secondary assist. He got the puck to defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang got the primary assist. He carried the puck coast to coast with speed, cut in from the right-wing boards and took a shot that Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson appeared to stop. Except the puck squirted under Gustavsson's pads and came to rest just behind him in the crease.
Jokinen raced in and swatted the puck over the goal line for a 3-2 Penguins lead.
"[Letang] made a good shot there. I thought the goalie had it," Jokinen said. "Then, I heard the crowd going a little bit crazy. So, [I was thinking] maybe the puck is behind him. Then, I saw it.
"If there's not that noise from the crowd, I don't know the puck is there. Lucky that I saw it and got it in. I think everybody stopped playing for one or two seconds, but then I guess the referee didn't [blow the] whistle, and I heard the crowd."
Neal in different spot
At times Wednesday, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma put James Neal on the right wing with left winger Chris Kunitz and center Sidney Crosby to form a star-studded top line.
"I took opportunities a couple of times with favorable changes," Bylsma said.
He likened it to moving Evgeni Malkin, usually the second-line center and Neal's linemate, onto Crosby's line occasionally in an effort to generate offense.
Malkin is out because of a foot injury, and Neal gave Bylsma every reason to think he deserved a chance to skate with Crosby on a loaded line.
Neal had a game-best six shots and scored twice. Both of his goals came on the power play, one when the Penguins were set up in Detroit's end and another off of a rush on a setup from Crosby.
"James had a hot hand," Bylsma said.
"Almost had [a hat trick] a couple of times with Crosby and Kunitz."
All hail Letang
In what might have been a nod to circumstances beyond the 65-minute-plus game Wednesday, Letang was named the No. 1 star.
Letang, 26, played in his first game since his Jan. 29 stroke. In addition to the assist on Jokinen's goal, he played 22 minutes, 30 seconds, had two shots, blocked three shots, dished out one hit and had a plus-minus rating of minus-1.
"At one point in the game, I looked at him, and he didn't have a drop of sweat on him," Bylsma said. "He's got unique and rare conditioning and skating ability."
Letang's return from such a serious medical event didn't just have an impact on his team or the home crowd, who gave him a couple of rousing ovations. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock also acknowledge the situation.
"I think the first thing is you have to be real excited for him and his family," Babcock said. "As much as we're all competing against one another, he's been a competitive, good player in this league and, when that happens, you're just cheering for him that he's going to get, No. 1, his family life back and, No. 2, his game back, which he loves."
The Penguins were off Thursday. ... Neal's multigoal game against Detroit was his fifth this season and 15th in the past three seasons. Only Washington's Alex Ovechkin (23), Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos (22) and Montreal's Max Pacioretty (19) have more in that span. ... Jokinen also scored the shootout-deciding goal for the second game in a row. It was the first time a Penguins player scored a shootout-deciding goal in successive games since Letang did so Dec. 17 and 19, 2009. ... ... The practice today at Southpointe will be closed to the public because of a private event there.
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.
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