Mark Recchi scored and set up rookie Evgeni Malkin for the go-ahead goal, and the Penguins beat the Predators 4-1 Tuesday night behind another strong game by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury, who hasn’t lost in regulation in 10 games since Jan. 9, turned aside 25 shots as the Penguins won their ninth in 11 games, with two overtime losses. Pittsburgh is the NHL’s most improved team with a 27-17-9 record and 63 points – 29 more than they had at this time last season.
“We know they’re first overall, but we talked about how we’ve had better numbers than them in the second half,” Recchi said. “If we go play our game, we knew we were going to make it tough on them because we felt we could match up speed-wise with them.”
Nashville owns an NHL-best 37-15-3 record, but lost its third in four games because it couldn’t stop the Penguins’ oldest player and three of its youngest.
Jordan Staal and Malkin, whose combined age of 38 is one year younger than Recchi’s 39, had goals and NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby set up two others to give him 25 goals and 61 assists for 86 points in 50 games. The 19-year-old Crosby has four goals and 17 assists as the Penguins have earned at least one point in 11 consecutive games.
“They’re putting together the pieces. They have some of the stars of the league and they’re surrounding them with veteran leadership like Recchi,” Nashville’s Jason Arnott said. “It’s no surprise. We know how good they are and they have some fast skaters.”
Staal scored his 19th about six minutes into the second period to tie it 1-1, after Crosby carried the puck from the far blue line into the offensive zone and set up Staal in the left circle for a one-timer.
Malkin made it 2-1 about two minutes later on a power play, with defenceman Marek Zidlicky off for his third hooking penalty of the game. Recchi collected the rebound of Crosby’s missed shot and passed to Malkin in the right circle for his 26th goal.
“We just were in the penalty box too much – it’s tough to get into the flow of things,” Nashville’s Scott Nichol said after the Penguins went 1-for-7 on the power play.
Recchi got his 18th goal of the season early in the third, skating in from the right circle to beat goalie Chris Mason with a wrist shot that deflected off Mason’s stick. Recchi had gone scoreless in four games since getting 10 points in three games, including six goals, from Jan. 20-27.
Jarkko Ruutu also scored an empty-net goal.
“It was a big challenge for us, playing the No. 1 team in the league, and it’s a good test to see where we’re at,” Fleury said. “To be able to beat them gives us confidence.”
The Predators scored a first-period goal for the 18th game in a row when Nichol tipped in rookie defenceman Sheldon Brookbank’s shot from the right point late in the period. Brookbank was initially given the goal on the first NHL shot of his first game, but it was later credited to Nichol.
After that, Fleury made 21 saves over the final two periods against the Western Conference’s highest-scoring team.
“We knew he’s one of the best goalies in the league and tonight he showed it,” Arnott said. “He made some unbelievable saves.”
Despite beating a team as good as Nashville, Crosby isn’t ready to say the Penguins are moving into the company of the NHL’s top teams. At least not yet.
“I didn’t think you can judge it off one game,” he said. “We’ve been playing well lately, we’ve been on a roll, so we have to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them. We’re playing from the goalie out every night, and we have to keep it that way.”
Notes: The Penguins are 18-0-5 when leading after two periods. … The Penguins hadn’t beaten Nashville since Oct. 8, 2000, though the teams play infrequently. Nashville hadn’t played in Pittsburgh since 2004. … Fleury has 25 of the Penguins’ 27 victories. … The Penguins have won six consecutive home games. … Pittsburgh went 4-0-1 while playing five games in eight days, four at home. … Malkin has points in five consecutive games (two goals, five assists).