COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Pittsburgh Penguins have struggled at times in an injury-filled season.
When a game is in the balance, however, they still have the personnel and the experience to end up with the two points.
Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett scored goals 47 seconds apart midway through the third period and Marc-Andre Fleury made 35 saves and the Penguins clinched a playoff spot with a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night.
“I thought to a man we stepped up,” coach Dan Bylsma said after his team ended a string of three regulation defeats. “We’re fighting for every inch we can get right now. Tonight, this was exactly what we’ve talked about and wanted from this game. It was a playoff-type game, with playoff-type intensity.”
The Penguins are now at 99 points to move closer to clinching the Metropolitan Division title.
But it was far from easy, particularly without star forward Evgeni Malkin (foot) and other injured mainstays such as Paul Martin, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang.
Bennett hadn’t played in the past 50 games after surgery on his wrist. Yet he came up with the game-winning goal.
“Skating on my own, it’s a lot of skill stuff,” he said of the hours spent rehabbing the injury and trying to get back into game shape. “It’s something that’s grown my game even with being out. I felt pretty good out there.”
Fleury was at his best early – and late. He made a terrific save on the first shift on Cam Atkinson’s shot off a deflection. Then he made huge saves on Brandon Dubinsky and Atkinson during a scrum in front of the net in the final seconds.
“He was outstanding all game,” Bylsma said.
After a chippy game with lots of hard checks and few great scoring chances, the Penguins finally broke a scoreless battle at 10:35.
Sidney Crosby carried the puck through the neutral zone and slid a pass to Kunitz whose wrister from the top of the left circle avoided the outstretched stick of defenseman James Wisniewski to beat backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, who had stopped the first 28 shots he faced. It was Kunitz’s 34th goal.
Before that goal could be announced to a capacity crowd of 18,908, Bennett skated with the puck up the right wing on an odd-man rush. He tucked a hard wrist shot inside the far post for his second of the season at 11:22.
“That first one, it shot through our defenseman and unfortunately I picked it up late,” said McElhinney, who took over in place of the flu-ridden Sergei Bobrovsky. “The second one they capitalized on a 2-on-1. It’s a simple game; sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the right bounces.”
McElhinney had 29 saves as Columbus dropped to 0-5 against the Penguins this season.
“In four of those five games, it’s been good hockey,” said Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. “It just came down to one or two plays — and they were the team that made the plays.”
Wisniewski scored a power-play goal for Columbus with 3:06 left to cut the lead to 2-1. Pittsburgh hung on as Fleury stood tall in the last 10 seconds to turn away the potential tying goal.
“I took a shot and we kept banging,” said Dubinsky. “They collapsed on the net pretty hard and the puck squirted off to the side.”
The Blue Jackets came into the game in a four-way tie for a wild-card spot in the East.
Despite the loss, the Blue Jackets still hold the first wild-card spot in the East. They own the tiebreaker against the other three teams with 80 points (Detroit, Washington, Toronto) due to wins in regulation.
“We have to understand the urgency and desperation we have to come out with tomorrow (at Carolina),” Wisniewski said.
Notes: The Columbus Dispatch reported on Friday that the Blue Jackets are 29th in the 30-team NHL in attendance, drawing 14,347 per game. Despite a 23 percent increase in season-ticket sales to 8,600, attendance has actually dropped from last season (14,564). ... After a sunny, warm day in Columbus, a weatherman appearing on the monitors during the second intermission was loudly booed for predicting snow on Saturday.