Fourth line leads Penguins to crucial win over Hurricanes
Because it’s not usually a source of offense, a fourth line can make a big impact on the momentum of a hockey game by scoring a goal or two.
On Sunday night, the combination of Matt Cullen, Garrett Wilson and Adam Johnson did much more than that.
They made a big impact on the course of the Eastern Conference playoff race, too.
Wilson and Cullen scored first-period goals, and the Penguins held on for a 3-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in a critical late-season game at PPG Paints Arena.
“They just play with so much energy,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Their care factor, their try factor, they’re all competitive guys.”
With the win, the Penguins solidified their hold on third place in the Metropolitan Division. They have a three-point lead on fourth-place Columbus and a four-point edge on the fifth-place Hurricanes.
The Penguins close the season with a home-and-home series against Detroit followed by a home game with the New York Rangers next Saturday.
If they secure two more points in the standings — or if ninth-place Montreal fails to gain two points in any of its three remaining games — the Penguins will clinch a playoff spot for the 13th consecutive season.
If the Penguins win two of their last three games, they will finish no worse than third in the division no matter what Columbus and Carolina do. That would mean they could avoid the precarious wild-card spots where first-round matchups with Washington or Tampa Bay might loom.
“We played so hard tonight,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, who scored a third-period goal. “I think it was one of the best team efforts of the season. When the stakes are high, we always seem to find our extra gear. That’s what happened today.”
The fourth line did its damage in the first period.
About 11 minutes in, Johnson ran down a dump-in in the left-wing corner, Cullen centered to the blue paint and Wilson whacked away violently at the puck until it got past goalie Curtis McElhinney.
The assist was Johnson’s first NHL point in the fifth game of his call-up.
“I was so happy,” Cullen said. “Both those guys have played so well. Willie and Johnny have both been so effective and played so hard and so well. It’s nice to see guys like that get rewarded.”
With less than two minutes left in the period, a backchecking Johnson picked up a puck that Brian Dumoulin knocked away from Justin Williams at the defensive blue line and fed Cullen on the right wing. With Olli Maatta streaking to the far post, Cullen kept the puck and deposited a shot inside the far post.
Cullen has the winning goal in the Penguins’ last two victories.
“He’s a big-game player,” Sullivan said. “When the stakes are high, he plays his best. I thought he was terrific tonight, and his linemates were good. Willie knows exactly what he is, what his role is, and he brings it every single game. Adam Johnson has quietly done a nice job. He brings some speed. He gets in on the forecheck. He creates some turnovers. He’s responsible defensively, and that’s what we’re asking from that line.”
In the first two periods, the Penguins limited the Hurricanes, who lead the league in shots per game with 34.6, to 19 shots, including none in the first nine minutes of the second.
In the third period, the Penguins calmly held on as Carolina tested Matt Murray 20 times.
“They’re so good on the forecheck and in transition,” Murray said. “You’ve got to play on your toes and play in their face, and I think we did a good job of that.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .