Just after welcoming two of their leading scorers back, the tough-luck Pittsburgh Penguins suffered another big loss – this time on the defensive side – as they hobble toward the postseason.
With Kris Letang likely to be sidelined, the host Penguins seek their first back-to-back victories in over three weeks Sunday night when they try to deny the San Jose Sharks a third straight win.
Pittsburgh (41-23-11) totaled just nine goals over a 1-5-1 stretch that started March 14 when leading goal-scorer Evgeni Malkin (28 goals) went down with a lower-body injury versus Boston.
Patric Hornqvist, third on the team in goals (23) and fourth in points (45), missed five of those contests while dealing with an undisclosed injury. The Penguins have gone 8-2-1 since Feb. 21 and 33-13-6 overall with both in the lineup.
Malkin made an immediate impact with two assists Saturday when both players returned in a 3-2 victory over Arizona to open a three-game homestand. Sidney Crosby’s power-play goal in the third period proved to be the difference, giving him 20 points over his last 14 games and a league-leading 78 overall.
Pittsburgh moved into a tie with the New York Islanders for second place in the Metropolitan Division. The club, though, is now expected to be without one of its defensive stars while attempting to win consecutive games for the first time since March 6-7.
Letang, who ranks among defensemen leaders with 54 points, left for the hospital after taking a hit and smacking his head on the boards in the second period. The veteran has a history of concussions and suffered a stroke last year.
”Kris Letang is a premier player in the league and he’s had a phenomenal season for us," said coach Mike Johnston, who is already missing defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. "I saw Kris lying on the ice and when I saw him come off, it didn’t look good.”
The Sharks (37-30-8) are having their own issues defensively after Marc-Edouard Vlasic went down with a lower-body injury and Scott Hannan was bloodied in the face in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout win at Philadelphia.
Vlasic and defenseman Mirco Mueller, who hurt his left hand and wrist Thursday, have been ruled out as San Jose looks to close out a seven-game trip with its first three-game winning streak since Jan. 21-31. The Sharks, however, are likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03 with eight points to make up in seven games.
San Jose had allowed 23 goals over its previous six contests before limiting the Flyers to 18 shots. Alex Stalock finished with 16 saves, though he’s expected to give way to Antti Niemi in the second of back-to-back games.
Niemi has gone 4-1-0 with a 2.65 goals-against average in six career starts versus Pittsburgh dating to his time with Chicago. He had 39 saves in a 2-1 shootout home win March 9 in the only meeting this season.
Marc-Andre Fleury ended up with 29 saves in that contest and Johnston will start him in the rematch. Fleury is 2-3-1 with a 3.50 GAA in his past six starts, but he’s stopped 73 of 75 shots in his last two versus San Jose.
He’ll try to slow Sharks’ leading scorer Joe Pavelski, who has scored four times on the road swing.
San Jose has dominated this series by going 16-2-1 with one tie over the past 20 meetings.