PITTSBURGH – It took a third-string goalie to get the Pittsburgh Penguins to play their best hockey.
Ty Conklin made 35 saves for his second shutout and seventh victory in seven starts this season, and the Penguins won their sixth straight with a 3-0 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday.
“You knows he’s feeling confidence in there,” Pittsburgh defenceman Ryan Whitney said. “Pucks are hitting him and there’s no second shots. He’s smothering rebounds and doing a great job. I think the whole team feeds off him because you can tell in practice and in games he’s just in one of those grooves right now.”
Conklin, who is in the NHL only because of an ankle injury to starter Marc-Andre Fleury, has started each of the past six contests and allowed only eight goals in that time.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each had a goal and an assist, and Tyler Kennedy also scored an early goal for the Penguins, who have won eight of 10, are 15-5 in their past 20 and have a five-game winning streak at home.
“Its nice, mostly because the team’s been plying so well,” said Conklin, who was 11-7 in 18 starts for Pittsburgh’s AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “Everything’s a lot more fun when you win.”
Kennedy gave Pittsburgh all the offence it would need by scoring his eighth of the season – and second in two games – 4:26 into the contest when he one-timed a pass from Jordan Staal past Tomas Vokoun. The goal tied Kennedy for fourth among NHL rookies.
Less than two minutes later, Malkin scored his fourth in two games while on the power play, slamming home a rebound of Ryan Whitney’s shot for his team-high 19th of the season.
“This team’s too good to give them that kind of opportunity and that kind of lead,” Florida defenceman Bryan Allen.
More than 50 minutes of scoreless hockey followed until Crosby’s wrist shot while in the slot beat Vokoun with 2:41 left.
“The effort speaks for itself,” Vokoun said. “You know, the game could have been over after five minutes or 10 minutes. There’s not really much to say about it.
“Give them credit, they played a good game. But it’s not about the way they played, it’s about the way we played.”
Conklin’s best save might have been when he caught Brett McLean’s shot with his glove while sprawled on the ice early in the second period. Conklin also stopped David Booth on a shot from the slot with about six minutes to play.
“When you have a goalie that can make the saves, he’s giving you a chance to win, and this is what he’s doing right now,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said.
Despite an abundance of shots, the Panthers had only one opportunity on the power play and did not generate a significant number quality scoring chances in losing for the fourth time in five games.
“The shot totals are a little bit misleading,” Conklin said. “If you look up there and see 35 shots, or see 35 shots in the box score, I don’t think it told the story of the game. I think we played solid in our end.”
Pittsburgh reached the halfway point of its season with 48 points, a pace that would give it 96 for the season. Last season, the Penguins similarly languished near .500 during the first three months of the campaign before a 14-0-2 run propelled them to 105-point finish.
“I don’t want to start predicting that will happen again,” Crosby said. “That’s a roll some of us might never hit again, what we did last year. You need a roll longer than two or three games in row to kind of jumpstart you in the standings. Whether this is one of them, who knows? You just make sure the consistency is there. We’re playing good hockey.”
Notes: The starting time was moved up 4 1/2 hours to avoid a conflict with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff game. … Pittsburgh has outscored its opponents 21-8 during the winning streak. … The Penguins improved to 5-1 against Southeast Division teams. … Pittsburgh has beaten the Panthers twice in a row at Mellon Arena after losing the previous seven matchups there.