Nedeljkovic stops 37 shots, Eller scores twice to help surging Penguins edge Islanders 3-1

Updated Dec. 31, 2023 9:43 p.m. ET

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins enter January with momentum and — they hope anyway — an identity that can sustain them for the grueling stretch to come.

Alex Nedeljkovic made 37 saves, Lars Eller scored twice and the Penguins held off the New York Islanders 3-1 on Sunday night for their fifth win in six games.

Pittsburgh is 7-1-1 overall over its last nine to climb into the Eastern Conference wild-card race as the the season's midpoint nears. Perhaps more importantly than winning is the way the Penguins are playing. They're largely avoiding the defensive lapses that cost them earlier in the season and getting a little offensive help from the bottom two lines to take some of the pressure off stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The two goals from Eller and another from Noel Acciari gives Pittsburgh's bottom two lines 17 goals over its last 13 games.


“I think it just feels like the whole team is getting a little more traction,” Eller said after his first multi-goal game since April 12, 2022, while playing for Washington. "Our best players have been our best players all year but we need everybody to chip in ... that’s what we need. We need everybody to give something.”

Nedeljkovic was spectacular at times while improving to 6-2-2 with the Penguins. His .923 save percentage is a massive jump from the .895 he posted last season with Detroit. He's also become a solid 1B to Tristan Jarry's 1A. The Penguins have given up the fourth-fewest goals in the league, one of the reasons they've managed to steady themselves despite their earlier offensive struggles.

“We’re going to rely on both (goaltenders),” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "They’re both helping us win right now. Jars played extremely well last night (in a win over St. Louis). Ned played extremely well tonight.”

Samuel Bolduc drew the Islanders within one with 6:09 left with the third goal of his career but New York could get no closer. Ilya Sorokin stopped 35 shots but couldn't stop the Islanders from falling to Pittsburgh for the second time in five days. And unlike the Penguins' 7-0 romp on Long Island last Wednesday, this one was in doubt until Eller's empty netter with 43 seconds to go.

“We played well enough to win the hockey game,” New York coach Lane Lambert said. “I think both goalies played well. We had some real good looks and didn’t get it by him, couldn’t get it by him. That was the difference in the game.”

Nedeljkovic turned away an early breakaway by Casey Cizikas and made four stops in a 10-second span during a New York power play, including a diving save on a Brock Nelson slap shot in which Nedeljkovic dove to his left and stopped the puck with his outstretched arms despite a helmet so wobbly it came off shortly thereafter.

“It was just a scramble and a couple of lucky plays on my part,” Nedeljkovic said.

Eller gave the Penguins the lead 2:18 into the game with a nice finish at the goal mouth off a set-up from Jansen Harkins. Acciari doubled Pittsburgh's lead 3:30 into the second when Drew O'Connor hit the breaks on the rush, pirouetted at the right circle to create some space then threw the puck toward the net, where Acciari redirected it by Sorokin.

The Penguins played a portion of the second period without captain Sidney Crosby, who went to the trainer's room to get stitches under his left eye after inadvertently getting hit with the blade of New York center Mathew Barzal. Crosby returned late in the second period but failed to record a point to remain at 1,538 for his career, one shy of Joe Thornton for 12th on the NHL's scoring list.


Islanders: Continue four-game trip Tuesday night at Colorado.

Penguins: Finish three-game homestand Tuesday night against Washington.