With Patric Hornqvist, the hat-trick hero of their previous game, missing the final two periods due to an apparent injury Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins had to try different personnel combinations up front.
Nearly every one of them came up aces.
Phil Kessel and Kris Letang scored twice as the Penguins routed the New York Islanders, 6-2, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins overcame yet another short-handed goal against to improve to 5-2-2 in their last nine games.
With the Penguins holding a 2-1 lead early in the second period, Riley Sheahan took a shift in Hornqvist’s spot on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Tanner Pearson. He promptly whacked in an airborne rebound of a Malkin shot with a waist-high swing in a scoring line-caliber display of hand-eye coordination.
When the Penguins went on a power play a few minutes later, Jake Guentzel replaced Hornqvist at the front of the net. He was in the middle of a highlight-reel passing play that gave them a 4-1 lead.
The puck went from Malkin in the right circle to Guentzel at the right post to Crosby below the goal line to Kessel for a shot into an empty net at the left post.
With the lines still scrambled later in the period, the rarely used even-strength combination of Crosby and Kessel struck again. This time, Guentzel made a pass to send Crosby in on net from the left wing, and he passed through the crease to feed Kessel for a tap-in.
In a development that wouldn’t have been predicted at the start of the season, the Penguins and Islanders were both hanging around the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division coming into the game.
The Penguins got to that spot with an uninspiring first two months of the season. The Islanders got there with a renewed commitment to defense under coach Barry Trotz.
Facing that challenge, the Penguins spent the opening moments of the game trying to make their way through a neutral-zone maze to get some offense going.
It didn’t take long for Letang to provide it.
At the end of a particularly effective shift by the third line, Letang and Derick Brassard set up a give-and-go play on the right wing. Letang fired a shot over the shoulder of goalie Thomas Greiss less than nine minutes into the game.
The dreaded short-handed goal came about 10 minutes later.
This one was different from its predecessors in that it didn’t involve a penalty killer taking advantage of a failed attempt at a fancy offensive-zone play by the Penguins power play.
On this one, Jamie Oleksiak went back into the left-wing corner of his own zone to retrieve a puck with Olli Maatta right behind him. They had only one Islanders forechecker to deal with — former Penguins winger Tom Kuhnhackl — and he stripped them bare and fed Josh Bailey alone in front for a shot between the pads of goalie Casey DeSmith.
It was the league-leading eighth short-handed goal allowed by the Penguins this season. They have given one up in three straight games.
Letang made sure the Penguins shook it off quickly, scoring in the final minute of the period.
On a routine offensive-zone entry, Letang took a pass from Bryan Rust at the blue line and fired a shot past a screen unintentionally set by Johnny Boychuk that sailed over the left pad but under the glove of Greiss.
Crosby added a third-period goal after the Islanders had closed the gap to three.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.