Neal scores two goals to lift Penguins to win
Brilliance wasn't required Friday night from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Penguins didn't need the possible return of top center Sidney Crosby, either.
A 3-1 victory over Dallas at Consol Energy Center staked the Penguins to their seventh win in nine games — and perhaps confirmed the belief of veteran left wing Brenden Morrow that one of the NHL heavyweights was on the ice last night and the game was a "measuring stick" for his surprising Stars.
The Penguins improved to 33-16-8 in the regular season since Crosby (concussion) last played Jan. 5. This victory was as impressive as any, if only because the Penguins so expertly attacked a weakened opponent.
They turned around the contest in the final six minutes of the second period; the Stars had led, 1-0, but were down to four healthy defensemen after injuries to Alex Goligoski and Mark Fistric.
"We were aware of the situation," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It would be our game plan to try and grind a team down (anyway, but) ... when they went down to four, we were in a situation where we had to invest with every puck that we played."
The Penguins also had to pull from their bank of resiliency. Twice — late in the second period and midway through the third — an act by left wing Chris Kunitz denied them a power-play goal. First was his illegal deflection of a shot by center Evgeni Malkin, then his early contact in the blue paint with Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Less than 30 seconds after each incident, Penguins right wing James Neal scored to turn momentum back toward the teammates he joined Feb. 21 after a trade from Dallas that also brought defenseman Matt Niskanen in exchange for Goligoski.
"This is the first time he's (had) a chance to play against them, so his emotions were pretty ramped up," Penguins left wing Matt Cooke said of Neal, who snapped a three-game goal drought with his 10th and 11th. "There (are) few things sweeter than playing against your former team."
Cooke would not use the term "sweet" to describe his move on a penalty shot a couple of minutes after Neal pushed the Penguins ahead in the third period. His juke was not, say, Crosby-esque, but the end result was a shot that eluded Lehtonen and positioned the Penguins to suffocate the Stars with a game-closing combination of puck movement and forechecking.
Fleury needed only make 19 saves for his ninth victory. He has surrendered two or fewer goals in seven of eight starts dating to Oct. 20.
The Penguins play tonight at Carolina, and they again will be without Crosby, who Monday did not rule out the "possibility" of playing against Dallas. Bylsma said Thursday there remains no timetable for Crosby's return.
The Stars, who awoke Friday with the NHL's most points and were 2-0 on a four-game road trip that featured the only win this season by an opponent at Washington, could contend the Penguins are tough enough without arguably the planet's finest player.
As long as Neal and Fleury keep producing as they have early this season and the likes of Cooke and Kunitz keep setting a gritty tone, perhaps these Penguins, even without Crosby, are more than what Morrow described.
Maybe they are the measuring stick.
Stars, 1-0 (16:08): Stars left wing Eric Nystrom redirected the puck past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from the slot. Nystrom finished off a soft pass from right wing Radek Dvorak, who cut toward the net after carrying the puck with speed near the left boards while entering the offensive zone.
Tied, 1-1 (17:56): On the power play, Penguins right wing James Neal ripped a shot past Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, patiently waiting after receiving a pass from left wing Chris Kunitz.
Penguins 2-1, (7:19): On the power play, Neal cut to the outside after taking a pass from center Evgeni Malkin in the slot. He tried to feed a pass back through the slot to Kunitz, but the puck deflected off the stick of Stars defenseman Mark Fistric and trickled into the net.
Penguins, 3-1 (9:28): Left wing Matt Cooke faked a backhand on a penalty shot before beating Lehtonen with a wrist shot.