Fast start carries Penguins to victory
PITTSBURGH – Chris Kunitz scored his 19th goal, Sidney Crosby had two assists and the Pittsburgh Penguins jumped out to a four-goal lead before beating the Minnesota Wild 5-2 Thursday night for their season-high sixth straight victory.
Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta sealed the Penguins’ win when he scored on a third-period penalty shot. Pascal Dupuis and Brandon Sutter each scored for the second consecutive game, and defenseman Matt Niskanen also tallied for Pittsburgh, which has won 11 of 12 overall and a nine straight home game.
Crosby extended his season-best point streak to nine games. He leads the league with 51 points.
Jason Pominville netted his team-high 16th goal and Dany Heatley scored 3:13 into the third period for the Wild, turning a three-goal deficit into a 4-2 game.
The Wild had an opportunity to make it a one-goal game shortly after with a 5-on-3 power play for 1:46, but the Penguins killed both penalties.
Matta was awarded a penalty shot after he was hauled down by Jonas Brodin on a breakaway.
The Wild played their first game without starting goalie Josh Harding, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. It’s a move that allows Harding time to make adjustments to medication for his multiple sclerosis. Harding, expected to return Dec. 27 at Winnipeg, led the league in goals-against average and ranked second in save percentage entering Thursday.
The Penguins, playing for the fifth time in nine nights, were without star forward Evgeni Malkin for the third straight game. Malkin, third in the league in scoring, injured his left leg last Saturday at Detroit. The Penguins were also without five of their top six defenseman for the third straight game, four injured and Deryk Engelland serving the third game of a five-game suspension for his hit on Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader.
Penguins’ forward James Neal returned to the lineup following a five-game suspension for kneeing Boston’s Brad Marchand in the head during a 3-2 loss to the Bruins. Neal was involved in a fight and had an assist.
The Wild are in the midst of a stretch where they play seven of eight games on the road. They won their last game, a 3-2 shootout victory at home against Vancouver Tuesday.
It was a homecoming for Wild forward Matt Cooke, playing his first game in Pittsburgh where he spent five seasons before leaving this past summer by free agency. Cooke, an instrumental piece of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run, has just 20 penalty minutes in 36 games this season, but he was a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh, serving multiple suspensions for several hits. He was recognized in the first period with a scoreboard video tribute.
Dupuis opened the scoring 49 seconds into the game, slamming home a rebound from the top of the crease. Niklas Backstrom had trouble handling the initial shot, giving up a rebound — tipped in the air by Crosby — that fell into the paint, allowing Dupuis to give the Penguins the early lead.
The Penguins struck less than two minutes into the second period as Sutter scored his 8th of the season, a turning shot from the left faceoff dot.
Niskanen, who logged nearly 30 minutes of ice time Wednesday at New York, netted a power-play goal less than two minutes later with a slap shot from the point that got past a screened Backstrom.
Kunitz gave the Penguins a 4-0 lead seconds after a fight between Neal and Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, the third fight in two periods. Crosby set up the goal with a no-look backhand pass from the corner to Kunitz, who buried a one-timer past Backstrom.
Pominville got the Wild on the board 37 seconds later, re-directing Nino Niederreiter’s shot behind Jeff Zatkoff.
The Penguins are 21-2 when scoring the first goal. . Penguins’ forward Jayson Megna will miss the next six weeks with a lower body injury. … Justin Fontaine, former Penguin Mike Rupp, and Nate Prosser were healthy scratches for Minnesota, while Brian Gibbons sat out for Pittsburgh. The Penguins host Calgary Saturday, while Minnesota visits the New York Rangers Sunday.