The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 3, 2014

Penguins win 11th straight at home

PITTSBURGH — The lineup shuffling continues for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

So does the winning.

Sidney Crosby scored his 23rd goal of the season and added two assists and the Penguins ripped the New York Rangers 5-2 on Friday night for their 11th straight home victory.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 33 saves for Pittsburgh and Jussi Jokinen ended a lengthy scoring drought with two goals. Chris Kunitz also scored twice for the Penguins, who won for the 10th time in their last 12 meetings with New York.

Pittsburgh remains on cruise control atop the Eastern Conference despite a roster riddled with injuries. Star center Evgeni Malkin is still out with a leg injury. The same goes for defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin.

Yet the Penguins keep rolling. Jokinen, moved to wing alongside Brian Gibbons and Brandon Sutter, scored for the first time in 34 days while Crosby and Kunitz continued to provide a lethal one-two punch, particularly on an ever-evolving power play.

“We know at this point there’s going to be different combinations,” Crosby said. “With guys out of the lineup like we’ve had, it’s what we’ve gotten used to.”

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma picked up his 231st career victory, leaving him one shy of Eddie Johnson’s franchise record for coaching wins.

Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves for the Rangers. Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh scored third-period goals for New York, but the Rangers continued to have problems with Pittsburgh, which can tie the mark for longest home winning streak in team history on Sunday against Winnipeg.

“It was just too easy for them to create big chances,” Lundqvist said.

The Rangers had plenty of opportunities of their own, just not good ones.

Fleury’s play had a little something to do with it. The Pittsburgh goaltender improved to 29-3 in his last 32 games at Consol Energy Center and is bolstering his bid for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team when it’s announced next week.

Crosby’s place is already assured. And four years after lifting Canada to gold in Vancouver, he remains at the top of his game. He pushed his point total to an NHL best 62 by setting up Kunitz twice and bumping Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-0 late in the second with pretty backhand from in front that Lundqvist fanned at as the puck hit the back of the net.

“I use a pretty straight blade and try to use it to my advantage,” Crosby said. “I probably go to it more than probably other guys because I’m comfortable there ... on those ones you always like having it.”

There’s a good chance Crosby could be joined in Sochi by Kunitz, who has developed a unique chemistry with one of the game’s greatest players. Both of Kunitz’s goals came on assists from Crosby. Kunitz’s 22nd goal of the season put the Penguins in front late in the first period and his 23rd goal with 6:37 remaining blunted a late New York rally.

“Any time you give a team like this that’s so structured the lead that we gave up, it makes it real hard,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.

New York simply couldn’t keep up. Ryan Callahan returned after missing nine games with a knee injury and while the Rangers were able to control play for several lengthy stretches, they never came close to beating Fleury while the outcome was still in doubt.

Their best chance came early, when Derick Brassard broke in alone on Fleury only to have his backhand shot deflect off the inside of Fleury’s pads and out of harm’s way.

Pittsburgh had little trouble capitalizing on the reprieve. Kunitz pushed a puck into an empty net 13:09 into the first and Jokinen scored his first goal since Nov. 30 with a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle that Lundqvist barely saw.

“I think any forward knows when it’s been awhile, when it’s been more than 10 games it’s been awhile.” Jokinen said. “There’s not any magic you can do about it. You just have to score goals in practice and keep your confidence level high.”

After going 34 days between goals, Jokinen barely had to wait 20 minutes for his next one. He took a pass from Gibbons and flipped a backhand by Lundqvist’s right shoulder while being dragged to the ice to make it 3-0.

Notes: New York forward Derek Dorsett broke his leg while trying to block a slap shot by Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta in the first period and is out 4-6 weeks. ... Pittsburgh is 19-2 when it scores first. ... Pittsburgh’s longest home winning streak is a 12-game run set between Feb. 22-March 30, 2013. ... New York plays in Toronto today.

 

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