PITTSBURGH – Ryan Malone can’t remember the last time the Pittsburgh Penguins had all of their key players together.
“It seems like forever,” Malone said.
With goalie Marc-Andre Fleury winning his first start since badly spraining an ankle nearly three months ago, forever may not seem quite as long now for the Penguins after they beat Atlanta 3-2 on Sunday behind rookie Kris Letang’s shootout goal.
Jim Slater and Slava Kozlov scored as the Thrashers came back from a 2-0 deficit, but still lost their seventh in a row and second in a shootout in as many days. They were beaten 3-2 by Boston on Saturday.
Fleury, winning his fifth in a row during a streak that began Dec. 6 in Calgary, turned aside 31 shots and didn’t allow former teammate Erik Christensen, Eric Perrin or Ilya Kovalchuk to get the puck past him in the shootout.
“I was a little nervous in overtime, but we still played good and it was fun to get the win,” said Fleury, making his first start at home since Dec. 3. “It was good to get that first game behind me.”
Now if only the Penguins could get Sidney Crosby back, as well as newly acquired Marian Hossa (knee) and playoff-proven forward Gary Roberts (broken leg, ankle). They are 11-6-4 since Crosby injured an ankle Jan. 18, but are uncertain when he will return. Hossa could be back during a three-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Tampa.
“We’re hurting right now with injuries,” coach Michel Therrien said.
Even if all those injuries haven’t exactly ruined their season.
The Penguins had lost four of five, but winning Sunday moved them past idle New Jersey and into the Atlantic Division lead by one point. The Thrashers, rapidly falling out of playoff contention, are 0-4-3 in their last seven.
Letang has been credited with only four goals in 49 games but his winner – though not officially a goal – was his fourth of the season. He had the winner in overtime Feb. 7 against the Islanders and has won three games by scoring in shootouts.
Petr Sykora and Jarkko Ruutu also failed for the Penguins during the shootout but Letang, the second of their three shooters, beat Kari Lehtonen cleanly on a backhander. Letang is 5-for-8 in shootouts.
“Give credit to out goalie,” Letang said, deflecting attention to Fleury. “We had to bounce back.”
Pittsburgh opened a 2-0 lead barely two minutes into the game as Malone and Maxime Talbot scored. The Penguins, 5-4 losers in Ottawa on Saturday, were credited with the first six shots but didn’t get the puck past Lehtonen again until the shootout.
“I think we’re pretty fortunate,” Malone said. “We were sloppy and we’ve got to be better, but we found a way to win.”
It wasn’t much of a homecoming for former Penguins forwards Mark Recchi, Colby Armstrong and Christensen, who began the game on a line together and were on the ice for Malone’s goal with 50 seconds gone. Recchi joined the Thrashers in early December after being let go by Pittsburgh, and Christensen and Armstrong were traded last Tuesday in the Hossa deal.
Malone scored as he swatted the puck out of Lehtonen’s glove as the goalie was covering up Sergei Gonchar’s shot from the point.
“Nobody wants to get scored on in the first shift,” Atlanta coach Don Waddell said. “We still would have liked to have seen a whistle on the play, but it didn’t happen. It’s certainly not the way you want to start a game.”
Christensen said, “It was a bad call, it wasn’t so much a bad shift. We thought the puck was covered.”
A week to the day, Christensen scored in a shootout for Pittsburgh during a 2-1 loss to San Jose. Christensen is 5-of-10 in shootout attempts, but is 0-for-2 with Atlanta.
“There’s not much I can do against him, he sort of knows me,” said Christensen, who regularly took 20 practice shots a day against Fleury and failed to beat him with a hard wrist shot.
Notes: Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin got his fourth point in two days and league-leading 88th of the season by assisting on Malone’s goal. But his tripping penalty led to Kozlov’s power-play goal early in the third .. The Penguins are 1-1-1 as each of their last three home games has gone into overtime. … Recchi has only three goals in 25 games after getting seven in his first 13 games with Atlanta. … Christensen and Armstrong were cheered loudly during the pre-game introductions.