Penguins close season's first half with win at Montreal
January 9, 2016 11:31 PM
Paul Chiasson /The Canadian Press via AP
Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist (72) celebrates his goal against the Montreal Canadiens with teammate Phil Kessel during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Montreal.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MONTREAL — The first half of the Penguins season was disappointing, by most measures, but not everything about it was discouraging for them.
There was Marc-Andre Fleury’s consistently excellent goaltending. Some of the most stingy penalty-killing in the NHL. A power play that, after a lengthy funk, has begun to generate goals on a regular basis.
And all of those came together in their 3-1 victory Saturday night against Montreal at Bell Centre.
Fleury turned aside 33 of 34 shots, including a rocket from Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban through a screen with 4½ minutes left in regulation.
The penalty-killers snuffed all four of Montreal’s chances with the extra man, running their streak of successful kills to 25.
And the power play, which entered the game on a 10-for-27 roll, generated the Patric Hornqvist goal that gave them a 1-0 lead early in the second period.
Oh, there were some troubling flashbacks as well — the Penguins, for example, failed to exploit a number of scoring opportunities — but the victory ranks among their most satisfying to date.
“I think that’s the most complete game we’ve played this year,” said forward Eric Fehr, who sealed the victory with an empty-net goal with 10 seconds left in regulation.
“From five-on-five to power play to penalty-kill to goaltending, I thought we were really good.”
The Penguins finished their first 41 games with a record of 20-16-5, good for 45 points.
That put them within one point of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, pending the outcome of Tampa Bay’s game at Vancouver.
The Penguins were 25-10-6, good for 56 points, at the midpoint of the 2014-15 season. They went on to earn just 42 points in the second half, and did not qualify for the playoffs until the final night of the season.
This victory could have proven costly, because defenseman Brian Dumoulin was injured when he took a Subban shot off the left hand or lower arm late in the third period.
Dumoulin did not play the rest of the game, but said afterward that his injury is not significant.
“Nothing too bad,” he said. “It should be good for the next game.”
Hornqvist’s goal, his ninth of the season, was made possible by a Phil Kessel set-up at 7:18 of the second period.
Subban countered for the Canadiens at 10:39, when he beat Fleury with a slap shot through traffic from near the blue line.
Coach Mike Sullivan has preached the need to be resilient since he took over as coach Dec. 12, and his team embraced that idea after Montreal pulled even.
Less than four minutes after Subban scored, Nick Bonino sprung Bryan Rust behind the Montreal defense with a deft backhand feed, and Rust — who had been call up from the Penguins’ minor league team in Wilkes-Barre just a day earlier — banged a high shot past Montreal goalie Mike Condon for what became the winner.
“That’s a pretty good way to start,” Rust said. “Anytime you get called up, that first game, there’s a little bit of nerves.”
They weren’t evident in Rust’s play very often. And his teammates certainly didn’t show any when Montreal pressed for the tying goal in the third period.
The game might not have been so close if the Penguins offense had been a bit more opportunistic, but their inability to pad the lead didn’t faze them.
“We didn’t score on a lot of our opportunities, but we kept coming,” Fehr said.
“Maybe the team, at the beginning of the year, might have gotten a little frustrated, but we stayed with it.”
And got a 2-point reward to show for it.
Dave Molinari: email@example.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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