Leave it to the Penguins, a team built around offensive talent but erratic lately when it comes to results, to potentially save their season with penalty killing.
Then again, doing things the hard way sort of has become the Penguins’ way during this tumultuous season.
Taking the ice with five defensemen and in overtime of the second of back-to-back games, the Penguins’ penalty kill stoned the Sharks before David Perron and Sidney Crosby scored in a shootout to produce a 3-2 win Sunday at Consol Energy Center.
“That was a game-changer right there,” coach Mike Johnston said of the penalty kill. “It was a close, tight game, but the penalty kill was the difference.”
Chris Kunitz scored a power-play goal, his first tally in 15 games. Patric Hornqvist beat Sharks backup Alex Stalock. Sidney Crosby recorded an assist to keep a two-point cushion in the NHL scoring race.
Yet there was no denying the jolt the Penguins’ penalty kill provided on a minor to Nick Spaling late in the third and on Hornqvist’s double-minor during the four-on-three overtime session.
“It’s amazing to see the character that the guys showed,” Perron said. “We fed off of it in the shootout.”
With the Islanders and Capitals also winning Sunday, the Penguins (42-23-11) remain tied with the Islanders for second place in the Metropolitan Division with 95 points. The Penguins are technically ahead based on number of games played, although the teams are tied in the most frequently used tiebreaker (non-shootout wins; each has 38), and the Islanders have more points (6-3) in games played between the clubs.
That the Penguins went 7-6-2 in March should be seen as no small feat.
Because of a concussion suffered by Kris Letang on Saturday, combined with a lack of salary-cap space, an upper-body injury to fellow defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and NHL rules on reserving injured players, the Penguins took the ice Sunday with just five defensemen for the second time in eight days.
The Penguins haven’t fielded a, 20-man lineup and finished the game with that group intact for five games — sinceMarch 19 at Dallas.
This month, the Penguins have had two late, surprise scratches in Crosby and Ehrhoff. Evgeni Malkin and Hornqvist were hurt in back-to-back games. Perron was sick Saturday. Then, Letang.
“We haven’t played our best lately, the way we can,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 30 of 32 shots. “But we had two solid games this weekend. … We came back in the game (Sunday), stuck with it and found a way.”
Because of the penalty kill, too, which could be a little extra aggressive because of what Johnston called “heavy ice.”
The NHL’s second-ranked unit used that aggressiveness to give the Penguins a spark.
In the process, it may have done something else.
“(Sunday) could be a big turning point for our team,” Johnston said. “It was an important game. We were a little bit short-handed, handicapped with Letang gone. At the same time, we found a way to win the game. That’s a key thing.”
Ben Smith and Logan Couture scored for the Sharks, who are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
Note: Linesman Steve Barton left the game for undisclosed reasons. Barton also left Saturday’s contest after taking a stick to the mouth.