Penguins top Lightning
Petr Sykora celebrates his goal against the Lightning with Evgeni Malkin, left, and Ryan Malone in the third period last night at Mellon Arena.
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Jarkko Ruutu is not the face of the NHL.
Never has been. Never will be.
And a lot of people probably are grateful for that.
But during, and even after, the Penguins' 4-2 victory last night against Tampa Bay at Mellon Arena, Ruutu was the face of stretch-drive and playoff hockey.
He left the building with a little less blood -- and a few more stitches -- than he had had when he arrived, but taking home two points made the trade-off one he didn't mind at all.
"This is what I'm all about," Ruutu said. "I love the playoffs. It fits my style. There's no free skating. You have to earn everything you get.
"I love all the battles. I'm not very good on the games where there's no checking, a lot of free skating. The more pressure, the better."
The victory lifted the Penguins (42-25-7) back into a tie with New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Devils, who will use their game in hand when they play host to the New York Islanders tonight, will visit Mellon Arena at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin had a goal and an assist to run his points total to 99, three fewer than Washington left winger Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's scoring leader.
Malkin nearly got No. 100 in the waning seconds of regulation, when he set up Marian Hossa for an empty-netter, but Hossa lost track of just how close time was to running out, and didn't shoot until it had expired.
"I thought there were an extra couple of seconds left," he said. "If I knew, I would have taken the shot right away."
Hossa's center, Jordan Staal, had another strong game and is starting to make regular appearances on the score sheet after struggling offensively for most of the season.
Staal scored the winning goal against Tampa Bay, giving him goals in back-to-back games and three in the past five.
"I'm just feeling more comfortable and getting a lot more chances," he said.
Ruutu had several of his own and converted one at 14:20 of the opening period, when he rapped a Brooks Orpik rebound past Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith.
He paid dearly for it, though, as Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle smacked him in the face with his stick as Ruutu was shooting.
The blow drew blood from a gash Ruutu said required "10 or 15" stitches to close, but Boyle received only a two-minute penalty. Presumably, the officials wiped out the half of the double-minor because they believed Ruutu was high-sticked before the goal was scored, although replays suggested that was not the case.
Ruutu was serving a boarding minor when Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier tied the score at 4:18 of the second, but Malkin put the Penguins back in front to stay by throwing a backhander past Smith at 10:05. Defenseman Ryan Whitney made Malkin's goal possible by keeping the puck in the attacking zone at the right point a few second earlier.
"Luckily, it wasn't hopping," Whitney said. "It was flat, and I was able to put my stick on my backhand. It didn't hit any bad ice."
The Penguins weren't particularly pleased with their work in the first 40 minutes -- "We needed to step up our game," coach Michel Therrien said -- but that changed in the first minute of the third.
Tampa Bay, scorched for six goals in the final period of a 7-4 loss Wednesday in Buffalo, allowed two in a 16-second span during the first minute of the third to cement the outcome.
Staal made it 3-1 35 seconds after the intermission by beating beat Smith from inside the left circle and Petr Sykora took a feed from Malkin and scored from the slot at 51 seconds.
"That was big," Staal said.
Although Filip Kuba sliced the Penguins' advantage to 4-2 with a power-play goal at 1:51, that was the last of Tampa Bay's 21 shots that made it past Fleury.
"[Fleury] was good again," Therrien said. "That's a good sign, when the goalie looks sharp."
Just as it is when Ruutu looks like playoff hockey.
First Published March 21, 2008 12:00 am