The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 29, 2013

Red-hot Pittsburgh runs win streak to 14 games

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ perfect march through March is turning into a flat-out sprint.

And the latest addition to their star-studded lineup isn’t even due in town until the weekend.

The streaking Penguins raced past the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 on Thursday night for their 14th straight win. At the rate Sidney Crosby and company are going, the NHL record of 17 consecutive victories set by Pittsburgh 20 years ago is well within reach.

Not that Crosby is putting much stock in his team’s remarkable run. Honest.

“It’s not something we really talk about,” said Crosby, who had two assists to push his point total to a league-leading 56. “We know that the streak is nice but at the end of the day it doesn’t really mean anything. I think it’s a result of our hard work, but I don’t think anyone is going to remember that come playoff time.”

Pascal Dupuis scored twice for Pittsburgh and Evgeni Malkin celebrated his return to the lineup with his first goal in more than three weeks. Chris Kunitz added a goal and an assist as the Penguins capped a giddy 24 hours by dominating the Southeast Division leaders.

And to think newly acquired Jarome Iginla is still in Canada working through immigration issues. The Penguins acquired the six-time All-Star forward late Wednesday night, an audacious move that thrust them from Stanley Cup contender to favorite.

Pittsburgh hardly played like the pressure – of what is now the third-longest winning streak in NHL history – is a burden.

“We made it tough on them,” said Crosby, whose team hasn’t lost since the last day of February. “The fact we got to them early probably helped us a little bit but we kept our foot on the gas the entire game.”

Tomas Vokoun stopped 20 shots and even recorded a rare assist as the Penguins posted consecutive shutouts for only the second time in franchise history. Vokoun also became the 26th goaltender in NHL history to record 50 career shutouts.

“He was strong, really solid in there,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “Fifty is a big number.”

Al Montoya, making just his fourth start of the season, made 39  saves for Winnipeg but the Jets were no match for the NHL’s hottest team.

The league record for consecutive wins was set by the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins in 1992-93, and appears to be in serious jeopardy, though Lemieux – who now co-owns the franchise – hardly appears to mind.

Pittsburgh hosts the New York Islanders on Saturday and Buffalo next Tuesday. If the Penguins can handle a pair of Eastern Conference also-rans they could head to New York to face the Rangers April 3 with a chance to tie the record.

The latter half of Pittsburgh’s streak has been filled with taut defensive struggles, one-goal thrillers and stunning third-period comebacks, proof the Penguins say they’re ready for playoff hockey.

There was no such drama required against the Jets, who have lost 12 straight games in Pittsburgh.

“We started watching and stopped skating,” Winnipeg forward Andew Ladd said. “Against a team like that, that’s not a good thing.”

Bylsma says he will experiment with line combinations while trying to work in Iginla and Brenden Morrow – who came over in a trade with Dallas on Sunday – but it’s unlikely he’ll mess with the trio of Kunitz, Dupuis and Crosby.

Hockey’s highest-scoring line wasted little time getting to work against the little-used Montoya, making his seventh appearance this season.

Kunitz put the Penguins in front 15:03 into the first period, though the play was all Crosby, who flicked a no-look backhand pass from behind the net to Kunitz in the left circle. The puck somehow found its way through a pair of Winnipeg defenders and by Montoya for Kunitz’s 20th goal of the season.

The Penguins appeared to go in front 2-0 less than 2 minutes later when a slap shot from Dupuis rocketed by Montoya and caromed back into play. Half of the arena rose in unison, but the red light never came on and play continued.

No biggie. Not the way Pittsburgh is rolling.

Malkin scored his first goal since March 4 just over 30 seconds after Dupuis’ near miss when a centering pass from James Neal hit off the Russian’s skate twice and rolled over Montoya’s right pad.

Dupuis singlehandedly doubled the lead in the second period. He scored his 16th goal of the season off a feed from Kunitz then added his 17th later in the period when he faked a pass to Tanner Glass and fired a wrist shot over Montoya’s glove. The short-handed goal pushed the lead to 4-0.

Winnipeg had no answer. The Jets rarely do in Pittsburgh. The franchise hasn’t beaten the Penguins on the road since Dec. 27, 2006, when the franchise was in Atlanta.

Barring a matchup in the playoffs, the Jets will have to wait until next season. Pittsburgh put an exclamation on its dominance by easily killing a nearly 2-minute, 5-on-3 power play early in the third period.

“Our power play didn’t generate enough for sure. especially against a team like that, you’ve got to take advantage,” Ladd said. “They gained more momentum off our power play than we did, which isn’t a good thing.”

The crowd rose to its feet as the second penalty expired and the final 16 minutes felt more like an exhibition, the Penguins biding their time until Iginla arrives to join a team that looks very much like a Stanley Cup favorite.

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