PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Midway through the season, Sidney Crosby would have been the runaway choice for the NHL’s most valuable player. In a pregame ceremony Sunday, Marc-Andre Fleury was honoured as Pittsburgh’s team MVP.
In the absence of Crosby, the reinvented Penguins continued to rely upon Fleury to keep winning games.
Alex Kovalev and James Neal scored in the shootout, Marc-Andre Fleury had 37 saves and Pittsburgh set an NHL record by winning via shootout for the fourth consecutive game, beating the Florida Panthers 2-1 on Sunday.
“We’re in a good streak right now getting some wins that way,” Fleury said.
Ben Lovejoy scored in regulation for the Penguins, who moved within two points of Philadelphia in the race for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference leads.
The Flyers, who lost 2-1 at home to Boston on Sunday night, will visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.
Crosby missed his 35th consecutive game because of a concussion, although he skated and stickhandled for about 45 minutes Sunday morning and is thought to be gradually getting closer to a return to game action.
An offensive juggernaut with their captain, the Penguins have turned to defence to stay near the top of the standings. Pittsburgh improved to 13-1-5 in one-goal games without Crosby—6-2 in shootouts, including winning the past five. They were fifth in the league in goals at 3.2 per game when Crosby was injured but entered Sunday averaging about a goal a game less since—26th in the league in that stretch.
Pittsburgh has won its past three games despite scoring only two goals.
“Some games you need to do it 1-0,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “I’m not sure if it’s a huge concern, but I don’t think it’s the strength of our team right now.
“We don’t coach differently and say, ‘Hold on and hopefully we can get the extra one (point) in the shootout.'”
Fleury set a team record for time elapsed between goals allowed (150 minutes, 14 seconds). He also stopped Mike Santorelli and Niclas Bergfors in the shootout.
“He’s our MVP,” said Bylsma, “and I think he deserves to be mentioned as league MVP with his play this year.”
Ryan Carter scored for the Panthers, who have lost five straight.
After an unsuccessful try by Kris Letang in the shootout, Kovalev made multiple moves to his forehand, banging a shot off the left post into the net behind Florida backup goalie Scott Clemmensen. Clemmensen—who entered the game for the start of overtime after Tomas Vokoun left due to back tightness—was beat by a Neal wrist shot to end the game.
“It would definitely be nice to win it in regulation and not go into overtime every game, but two points is two points,” Kovalev said. “We set the goal to catch Philadelphia and get first in the conference and that is what we are doing right now. Today wasn’t the best game that we played, but we got two points.”
The Penguins, who tied Washington for second in the conference with 98 points, have won six of seven. They clinched a playoff berth when Carolina lost Saturday night.
It was an NHL-high 47th one-goal game for Florida, tying the team record. The Panthers fell to 18-18-11 in such instances.
Carter scored with 4:28 left in the second period, snapping Fleury’s franchise-record shutout streak. Early in that period, he bested Jocelyn Thibault’s record of 136:13 set in 2006-07.
“We all work hard all season, practice a lot, and when stuff like that happens, it’s fun, you know?” Fleury said. “But at the same time, at the end of the day it’s the games that matter. It’s the points that we get, the wins.”
Carter’s second goal with Florida since being acquired in a trade from Carolina Feb. 24 came off a redirection of an Alexander Sulzer shot from the point, his third of the season.
“That’s a good team out there, maybe one of the better teams that we’ve played,” Carter said. “And I think for parts—if not most—of the game, we kind of took it to them.”
Before Carter’s goal, Florida had scored only twice in its previous 207:06. Pittsburgh trumped that by enduring a span of 199:33 with only one goal before Lovejoy’s goal 2:17 after Carter’s.
A defenceman, Lovejoy was given the puck by Kovalev while he was below the right circle. Lovejoy turned and flipped a rising wrist shot that skipped off the chest of Vokoun and into the top of the net for his third of the season.
That was Pittsburgh’s first goal in a span of 146 minutes, 8 seconds.
Vokoun stopped 23-of-24 shots, and Clemmensen stopped all four Pittsburgh shots in overtime.
“That’s as good a road game as we can play as a group,” Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. “I thought we limited their opportunities. We got shots…. but our fourth line gets us a goal and we can’t find a way to find another one.”
NOTES: Penguins D Brooks Orpik returned after missing 13 games with a broken finger. … Panthers LW David Booth played two days after he was briefly hospitalized following being struck in the throat by a puck.