The Penguins’ Phil Kessel reacts after scoring a goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the second period.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
RALEIGH, N.C. — Kris Letang isn’t the kind of guy who over-thinks things.
Considering his offensive skills and instincts, that’s probably good.
Still, Letang was paying close attention when teammates Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz faced Carolina goalie Cam Ward in the first two rounds of a shootout Friday night at PNC Arena.
Then he used what he had witnessed to score the shootout-deciding goal in the Penguins’ 2-1 victory against the Hurricanes.
Letang noticed that Ward had remained deep in his crease when he faced Crosby and Kunitz, and figured that “if I could keep the puck close to me and shoot upstairs,” he would have a good chance of scoring.
Which he did by sticking a close-range backhander under the crossbar from the left side of the crease in Round 3 to end the game.
“If my fake [forehand] shot doesn’t drop him, I’m going to shoot [after going to the backhand],” Letang said.
His shootout goal gave the Penguins their seventh victory in the past nine games and raised their record to 28-19-7.
They remain in the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot because Tampa Bay, which is one point ahead of them, recorded a 4-3 overtime victory against Nashville.
While Letang ended the game, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the primary reason the Penguins made it past regulation.
On a night that won’t take up much space on the team’s highlights video — “That was not a good game for us,” Letang said. “As a team, I don’t think we played well” — Fleury was strong, turning aside 29 of 30 shots in the first 65 minutes, then stopping all three Hurricanes shooters he faced in the shootout.
He was particularly effective in the third period, when Carolina got its only goal — Andrej Nestrasil scored from outside the right dot at 14:42 — but could have had several more.
“They controlled a lot of the third period,” Penguins center Sidney Crosby said.
Still, the Hurricanes were playing from behind then because right winger Phil Kessel had given the Penguins a 1-0 lead at 15:43 of the second as he beat Ward on the short side from the bottom of the left circle.
Kessel finished with a team-high seven shots on goal. He he did not speak with reporters after the game because he was having a skate cut stitched, but coach Mike Sullivan did.
And Sullivan made it clear that he liked what he had gotten out of Kessel, who had no goals in the previous five games and only three in the previous 15.
“He worked,” Sullivan said. “He was in the battle areas. He was on the puck. When he had opportunities to shoot the puck, he would shoot the puck.
“He was moving his feet. For me, those are Phil’s strengths. When Phil skates and he works, he’s a dangerous guy.”
On his goal, Kessel took a short pass from linemate Matt Cullen before throwing the puck past Ward.
“He had a real quick release, and it probably surprised Ward a little bit,” Sullivan said. “It was a great catch-and-release play.”
While the Penguins praised Carolina’s effort — “They had a lot of energy,” Sullivan said — they clearly were not satisfied with their own.
They were outshot and, at times, outworked, especially during the third period.
Still, they managed to claim a couple of points, and remain the only NHL club with an unblemished record [21-0] when leading after two periods.
“You’re not always going to play exactly how you want to,” Crosby said. “You have to find ways to win sometimes.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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