Penguins inch closer to playoff spot, top Hurricanes 3-1
By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Matt Cullen is well-versed in the electricity that creeps into a locker room when the games dwindle down to a precious few and the playoffs loom. It’s one of the main reasons the veteran Pittsburgh Penguins center — at 42 the NHL’s oldest player — keeps coming back for more.
When Cullen arrived at work Sunday for Pittsburgh’s pivotal showdown with Carolina, the vibe was unmistakable and familiar. So was the result.
Cullen scored a goal and added an assist and the Penguins took a major step toward locking up a postseason spot for a 13th consecutive year with a 3-1 victory over the Hurricanes.
“We had a real playoff feel in here which is good and the energy in the building was great,” Cullen said. “It was a big game for our team. Obviously it’s a huge two points.”
Pittsburgh sits at 97 points with three games left in the regular season. The Penguins need two points — be it a victory in any fashion, a pair of overtime losses or any single loss by Montreal — to extend the NHL’s longest active postseason streak.
“I think we still have some really good opportunities in front of us,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “Until that regular season is over, we’ve got to continue to grab points. We’ve got to make the playoffs first and foremost. Then we can look at the opportunities beyond. This was a big opportunity tonight.”
Carolina’s bid to reach the postseason for the first time in a decade took a hit. The loss combined with Columbus’ win in Buffalo dropped the Hurricanes to the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Carolina has 93 points, just one ahead of the Canadiens with a week to go.
Jaccob Slavin’s power-play goal with just under eight minutes to go spoiled Murray’s bid for a shutout but by then the Penguins were firmly in control. Curtis McElhinney finished with 25 saves while losing for the third time in four starts. A day removed from a lopsided win in Philadelphia, the Hurricanes spent the first two periods running in place against Pittsburgh.
“Just didn’t have any jump, I guess,” Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk said. “We were pretty flat. We didn’t make smart decisions. It cost us, I think.”
Playing without injured stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the Penguins relied on their depth and the kind of defensive grit they’ve lacked at times their at times wildly uneven season. Carolina came in leading the NHL in shots per game (34.5) and while it did manage to eventually get 38 on Murray, Pittsburgh blocked 23 others and clogged the ice in front of its goaltender.
“We didn’t really get to our game until about halfway through and then it’s pretty much you’re just chasing it and it’s tough,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
Cullen and fourth-line mates Garrett Wilson and Adam Johnson provided the Penguins an early jolt. Wilson put the Penguins in front just past the midway point of the first period, crashing the net following a feed by Cullen from the corner and then jabbing at the puck until it emerged from the pile of bodies surrounding McElhinney and slid across the goal line.
Cullen, playing in his 1,513th career game — one shy of tying Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman for 19th on the NHL’s all-time list — doubled Pittsburgh’s advantage late in the first period when he and Olli Maatta broke in on McElhinney 2-on-1. Cullen looked at Maatta, but opted to zip a wrist shot from the right circle that sailed over McElhinney’s right arm and into the net for his seventh of the season.
Patric Hornqvist, who left briefly in the first period when his head hit the boards while getting checked by Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton, earned a measure of revenge 46 seconds into the third period when he collected a blind backhanded drop pass from Dominik Simon and beat McElhinney from the bottom of the right circle. The goal was Hornqvist’s 18th of the year and his first non-power play tally since Jan. 6.
Carolina mustered little in response.
The Hurricanes didn’t reach double digits on the shot counter until the middle of the second period. When Carolina did find space, Murray either came up with the stop or the Hurricanes couldn’t get the bounce they needed.
NOTES: Hurricanes D Calvin de Haan exited with an upper-body injury after getting pushed to the ice by Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel. De Haan will return to Carolina for tests. … Letang, Malkin, F Zach Aston-Reese and D Chad Ruhwedel all skated Sunday morning, but remain out with injuries. … The Hurricanes went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 1. … The teams split the season series 2-2. … Johnson picked up the first two assists of his career for Pittsburgh.
Hurricanes: Visit Toronto on Tuesday.
Penguins: Begin a home-and-home series with the Red Wings on Tuesday in Detroit.
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