Kunitz, Crosby help Penguins open big lead early in win over Wild
If Pittsburgh Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta was nervous, it certainly didn’t show.
Maatta sealed the Penguins’ season-high sixth straight victory when he scored on a third-period penalty shot Thursday night, and Pittsburgh beat the Minnesota Wild 5-2.
”I was nervous, for sure, but I think that’s the only move that I’ve got and it worked,” Maatta said. ”I thought he got it at first and then I saw it go in so I was pretty excited.”
Chris Kunitz scored his 19th goal, Pascal Dupuis and Brandon Sutter each scored for the second consecutive game, and defenseman Matt Niskanen also tallied for Pittsburgh, which has won 11 of 12 overall and a season-high nine straight home games.
Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby added two assists, extending his season-best point streak to nine games. He leads the league with 51 points.
Jason Pominville netted his team-high 16th goal and Dany Heatley scored 3:13 into the third period for the Wild, turning a three-goal deficit into a 4-2 game.
”We were not ready to play the game hard enough and that’s something that we have to look at ourselves in the mirror,” said Wild head coach Mike Yeo, a former assistant at Pittsburgh. ”To come out and get out-battled and outworked was disappointing.”
The Wild had an opportunity to make it a one-goal game shortly after with a 5-on-3 power play for 1:46, but the Penguins killed both penalties.
Maatta was awarded a penalty shot after he was hauled down by Jonas Brodin on a breakaway while coming out of the penalty box.
”That’s the game, depending on what happens there,” Crosby said. ”If they score on that power play it’s a different game and they’re one away from tying it.”
Instead, the 19-year-old Maatta, who made the team out of training camp, scored his third career goal on his first career penalty shot, part of a his first career three-point night. He is the second defenseman in team history to score on a penalty shot.
”To step up on a penalty shot like that, and put it in was huge,” Crosby said. ”It’s nice to see him capitalize. He’s been playing well for us all year.”
Maatta and Niskanen, his defense partner, have also shouldered the load while five of the team’s top six defenseman missed a third straight game. The bigger role for the young rookie includes increased minutes — he played almost a career-best 30 Wednesday night — and matchups against the opposition’s top line.
”That’s a tall order, but the confidence and steadiness and consistency in which he played has been maybe the best in the last three or four games,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said of Maatta.
The Penguins, playing for the fifth time in nine nights, were also without star forward Evgeni Malkin for the third straight game. Malkin, third in the league in scoring, injured his left leg last Saturday at Detroit.
Penguins’ forward James Neal returned to the lineup following a five-game suspension for kneeing Boston’s Brad Marchand in the head during a 3-2 loss to the Bruins. Neal was involved in a fight and had an assist.
The Wild are in the midst of a stretch where they play seven of eight on the road. They played their first game without starting goalie Josh Harding, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. It’s a move that allows Harding time to make adjustments to medication for his multiple sclerosis. Harding, expected to return Dec. 27 at Winnipeg, led the league in goals-against average and ranked second in save percentage entering Thursday.
It was a homecoming for Wild forward Matt Cooke, playing his first game in Pittsburgh where he spent five seasons before leaving this past summer by free agency. Cooke, an instrumental piece of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run, has just 20 penalty minutes in 36 games this season, but he was a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh, serving multiple suspensions for several hits. He was recognized in the first period with a scoreboard video tribute.
Dupuis opened the scoring 49 seconds into the game, slamming home a rebound from the top of the crease. Niklas Backstrom had trouble handling the initial shot, giving up a rebound — tipped in the air by Crosby — that fell into the paint, allowing Dupuis to give the Penguins the early lead.
The Penguins struck less than two minutes into the second period as Sutter scored his eighth of the season, a turning shot from the left faceoff dot.
Niskanen, who also logged nearly 30 minutes of ice time Wednesday at New York, netted a power-play goal less than two minutes later with a slap shot from the point that got past a screened Backstrom.
Kunitz gave the Penguins a 4-0 lead seconds after a fight between Neal and Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, the third fight in two periods. Crosby set up the goal with a no-look backhand pass from the corner to Kunitz, who buried a one-timer past Backstrom.
Pominville got the Wild on the board 37 seconds later, re-directing Nino Niederreiter’s shot behind Jeff Zatkoff, who won his sixth straight game.
NOTES: The Penguins are 21-2 when scoring the first goal. …. Penguins forward Jayson Megna will miss the next six weeks with a lower body injury. . Justin Fontaine, former Penguin Mike Rupp and Nate Prosser were healthy scratches for Minnesota, while Brian Gibbons sat out for Pittsburgh. The Penguins host Calgary Saturday, while Minnesota visits the New York Rangers on Sunday.