PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Florida goalie Jose Theodore thought he had a pretty good read on Evgeni Malkin’s rolodex of shootout moves.
Then the Pittsburgh star threw a new one at him.
Malkin loped through the zone, stutter-stepped his way to the front of the net and flipped the puck past Theodore—who vainly thrust his stick in the Russian’s direction—to score in the streaking Penguins’ 2-1 shootout victory Friday night.
“He has a couple tricks up his sleeve,” Theodore said. “He kind of slowed down. I thought maybe was going to go 5-hole. I tried to poke check, but he beat me with a glove shot.”
Malkin is 8 for 11 in shootouts this season for Pittsburgh, which has won eight straight games and is closing in on the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Steve Sullivan scored the tying goal in the third period and James Neal led off the shootout with a goal as the Penguins won for the eighth time this season when trailing after two periods.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near our best but we found a way to stick around and tie the game and win in a shootout,” said Sullivan, who has 11 points in his last eight games, tied for the league lead with Tampa Bay.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 28 shots and was perfect in the shootout for his 36th victory of the season, putting him one behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne for the NHL lead.
“We always know we can come back and make a run for it,” Fleury said. “I just tried to keep it simple and make some saves.”
Thomas Fleischmann scored his 21st goal of the season for Florida, and Theodore made 33 saves but the goalie was outclassed in the shootout by Neal and Malkin.
Pittsburgh has been arguably the best team in the league since its last game against Florida, a 4-1 victory on the road Jan. 13 that snapped a six-game losing streak and propelled the Penguins to an eight-game tear.
Nearly two months later, they haven’t let up.
Pittsburgh is 20-4-1 in its last 25 games, easily within striking distance of the Rangers with 15 games left in the regular season.
Coach Dan Bylsma said earlier Friday he believes the Rangers can be caught, and with the prospect of captain Sidney Crosby returning from concussion-like symptoms as early as Sunday the Penguins are brimming with confidence.
The Panthers, not so much after losing for the fourth time in five games.
Florida was crushed by the Flyers 5-0 on Thursday night, yet there appeared to be no hangover. The Panthers are adept at bouncing back after getting blown out, coming in with a 3-2-1 record in games after they’ve lost by at least four goals.
That resiliency has enabled Florida to stay atop the crowded—and decidedly mediocre—Southeast Division. If the Panthers can continue to play with the same discipline they showed on Friday, they might be in first when the regular season ends in four weeks.
“We need quality goaltending we need our (defence) making high-end plays,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “It’s disappointing not coming out with two points on this road trip, that would have been nice. But it certainly was a hard-earned point tonight.”
Pittsburgh was supposed to be refreshed following a welcomed day off, yet the Panthers were the ones who appeared to be a step ahead at times. They held the high-flying Penguins in check for most of the night and stayed out of the penalty box.
Fleischmann opened the scoring midway through the second period on a give-and-go of sorts. The left winger worked the boards and fed Wojtek Wolski in the slot before darting to the net. Wolski’s shot went wide of the goal and took a big bounce off the boards and onto Fleishmann’s stick. Fleury never had a chance and the Panthers had the lead.
It lasted until early in the third period when Jordan Staal created a turnover and fed the streaking Sullivan. The veteran slipped the puck by Theodore for his 14th goal of the season.
The Penguins appeared to move in front with 11:07 to play in regulation when Pascal Dupuis stuffed the puck by Theodore. The goal was waved off following a review, with officials ruling the puck didn’t go all the way over the red goal line before Theodore swiped it out of danger.
Pittsburgh had several chances to end it before the shootout, none better than Staal’s wide-open rebound that somehow flew over the net.
No matter, Malkin and Neal continued their superb work in shootouts, easily handling Theodore to prevent the goalie from picking up his 21st career victory against the Penguins.
NOTES: Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams left the game in the third period after taking a stick to the face. … Florida opens a four-game homestand Sunday against Carolina. … Pittsburgh D Paul Martin was scratched because of an undisclosed injury. The Penguins also scratched D Deryk Engelland, D Kris Letang, G Brent Johnson and forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi. … The Panthers scratched D Keaton Ellerby and forwards Mike Santorelli, Jerred Smithson and Kris Versteeg.