Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a shoulder save during the first period Wednesday against the Blackhawks.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHICAGO — The Penguins knew about Artemi Panarin before their home-and-home series against Chicago.
Explains why they showed interest in signing him as a free agent last spring.
But they’re a lot more familiar with him after watching Panarin score four goals against them, including two in the Blackhawks’ 3-1 victory Wednesday night at United Center, in a little more than a day.
“He’s obviously a very gifted player,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s dynamic when he has the puck.”
Pretty dangerous, too, based on his work the past two evenings.
“He’s got a good shot,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He has a good release. He shoots hard.”
Panarin, it should be noted, was the only one of Chicago’s many elite forwards to have major success against Fleury in these two games.
Jonathan Toews, who opened the scoring in Chicago’s 3-2 overtime victory Tuesday at Consol Energy, was the only other Blackhawk to get a puck past him. Teuvo Teravainen also scored Wednesday, but did it into an empty net after Fleury was replaced with an extra attacker.
Fleury finished with 34 saves and, in a season rife with strong performances, might have turned in his finest.
“He was phenomenal,” Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “It wasn’t just the amount of shots he had. He made some huge saves for us. That’s why we were in it.”
Certainly, Fleury’s teammates couldn’t be accused of keeping themselves in the game in the first period, when Chicago’s 15-3 advantage in shots might not have reflected just how much the Blackhawks dominated play.
“That might have been the worst period we’ve played since I’ve been the coach,” said Sullivan, who replaced Mike Johnston behind the bench Dec. 12.
Even so, Panarin was the only Blackhawk to beat Fleury in those 20 minutes, throwing a shot past him from above the left dot at 15:58 on the Blackhawks’ 11th shot of the game.
Fleury proceeded to hold off Chicago long enough for Penguins center Evgeni Malkin to tie the score on a power play at 7:33 of the second.
Malkin was credited with the goal, his 19th, when his shot from near the blue line eluded Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling.
Penguins center Sidney Crosby appeared to deflect Malkin’s shot into the net, but the initial scoring decision stood up, and Crosby said after the game that he was uncertain whether he had touched the puck.
“I waved at it,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Regardless of who got it, that goal looked as if it might be enough to earn the Penguins a point, maybe even give them a chance for two, until Panarin scored the winner at 8:56 of the third.
He grabbed a loose puck off a faceoff in the right circle and whipped it past Fleury to break the 1-1 tie.
Panarin’s second goal assured that the Penguins would drop to 19-16-5 and remain outside the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference.
Chicago, meanwhile, burnished its reputation as a team that doesn’t beat itself and doesn’t often allow other clubs to do it, either.
“They’re very deep and they know how to win,” Dumoulin said.
No surprise there. Teams don’t win three Stanley Cups in six years, as the Blackhawks have, by dumb luck.
Chicago has not lost more than two games in a row in regulation this season, and generally manage to win games that are up for grabs.
“For us, it’s just become a habit to do the right things,” Toews said.
“Find ways to win tight games.”
Dave Molinari: email@example.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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