By Dave Joseph and wire reports for floridapanthers.com
On a night they were missing two of its stars – on a night they were facing the hottest team in the NHL – the Panthers found themselves Tuesday evening in Pittsburgh holding a 3-1 lead going into the third period.
But instead of taking two points out of the Steel City, the Panthers went into the night with only a single point after the Penguins launched a torrid, third period comeback to win in a shootout 4-3.
Third period goals by Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal just 3:09 apart tied the game before Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang beat Tomas Vokoun in the shootout to jump the Penguins over the Panthers in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
With defenseman Bryan McCabe (fractured orbital bone) and Nathan Horton (severed tendon) out of the lineup, the Panthers got big performances early from some unlikely heroes. Nick Boynton, a healthy scratch the previous five games, scored his first goal since Dec. 14 and Kamil Kreps scored his third of the season to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead. Defenseman Keith Ballard made it 3-1 at 18:50 of the second period. The two goals by the defenseman gave the Cats 43 on the season, tying the franchise record for goals in a season (1995-96).
But the Panthers, despite a 47-save performance by Vokoun, couldn’t hold off the streaking Penguins, who won their seventh consecutive game and are now 9-1-1 under coach Dan Bylsma.
The winning streak is the Penguins' longest since they won eight in a row from Dec. 23, 2007, through Jan. 10, 2008.
The loss sent the Panthers in the topsy-turvy Eastern Conference from sixth to seventh, a point behind seventh-place Pittsburgh, tied with Carolina and a point ahead of the ninth-place Rangers.
"It's a big point this time of the year, but we had the opportunity to get two and you get greedy this time of the year," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said.
Richard Zednik and Stephen Weiss each failed against goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the shootout, allowing Malkin to decide it. Malkin repeatedly shifted the puck on his stick as he skated down the edge of the slot, forcing Vokoun to commit by going down and allowing Malkin to slip the puck into the unguarded net.
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"I did something different because I did not score the last time," said Malkin, who previously was 1-for-4 in shootouts. "I practiced my move a couple of times, and it worked good."
"The shootout is a lottery," said Vokoun.. "He (Letang) made a nice move on the first one and I kind of froze. I tried to throw a pokecheck at him (Malkin), but he made a good play."
"We heard about how it's a tough thing for a team coming back from a long road trip, and I think we came into this game knowing that didn't matter and that we needed two points, especially against Florida," Staal said. "So it was huge."
Staal made it 3-2 with 2:20 gone in the third, batting in a rebound of Matt Cooke's shot from the slot.
Crosby tied it with his 26th and third in three games since returning from a four-game layoff with a groin injury, finishing off a give-and-go sequence with new linemates Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz. Crosby redirected Guerin's shot, causing it to strike the left post and deflect off the back of Vokoun's left leg.
"You've just got to keep peppering him," Crosby said. "He was obviously on his game tonight but every goalie's the same way, if you get shots and get traffic, he's going to be forced to deal with rebounds - goalies can get tired, as well. When you face that many shots, it's not easy."
Guerin, who reached the 800-point mark last week shortly after being traded to Pittsburgh, was credited with his 400th assist. He has one goal and four assists since being traded by the Islanders a week ago.
Before that, Boynton, Kamil Kreps and Ballard scored in succession as the Panthers were outshot 18-7 in the second, yet turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead. Pittsburgh held a 36-12 advantage over the final two periods, only to be outscored 3-2. The Penguins ended with a 50-21 edge in shots.
Notes: Florida F Nathan Horton will be out 2-to-4 weeks due to a tendon injury in his left ring finger. ... Florida is 9-1-1 in Tuesday games. ... Fleury has won each game during Pittsburgh's winning streak. ... Pittsburgh played the first of nine home games in a 10-game span that runs through April 1. The only road game is Thursday at Columbus. ... Pittsburgh is 9-1-1 under coach Dan Bylsma. ... The 50-shot game was Pittsburgh's first since early last season at Toronto.