The Pittsburgh Penguins (35-15-6) newest star was born Friday night. Newly acquired winger Jason Zucker scored his first goal with the Penguins, then quickly followed it with his second tally in the waning moments of the second period. The Penguins otherwise contained the lackluster Montreal Canadiens (27-26-7) for a 4-1 win Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.
On Valentine’s Day, it was Zucker who was feeling the love. With just two minutes remaining in the second period, Zucker’s first Penguins tally gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead. Dominik Simon forced a loose puck ahead to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who stormed the Montreal zone and slipped a pass across the slot. Zucker (15) buried it.
“That pass was incredible. I was just glad I touched that,” Zucker smiled. “The one in the third I missed by four feet.”
Crosby had three assists.
Zucker’s second goal sandwiched a Montreal goal scored 66 seconds after Zucker’s goal. Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry leaned to defend a possible pass but was fooled by Tomas Tatar in the right-wing circle. Tatar (21) slipped it through Jarry to halve the Penguins lead.
However, Zucker (16) lit the lamp again after he spun around a Montreal defender then deflected Marcus Petterson’s pass past Price in the final seconds of the period. The goal broke Montreal.
“There are critical moments in games that significantly influence the outcomes,” head coach Mike Sullivan. “The shift or two right after a goal is scored on either side is really important. For me, that’s one of those critical moments.”
After NHL trade bait Ilya Kovalchuk took a slashing penalty early in the second period, the Penguins power play outworked and controlled the puck in the offensive zone. Moments after Penguins defenseman Kris Letang rang the crossbar behind Montreal goalie Carey Price, Letang took the open space to the right-wing dot. Letang (13) didn’t miss his second chance.
The Penguins first period was again a soft touch. The Penguins shot advantage was 8-6, but that included a few long-range wristers to earn a whistle and a line change.
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry made his best save of the period with a few minutes left when he squared to Brendan Gallagher and blocked a top-shelf deflection. Friday night, Jarry outdueled one of his childhood influences.
“I think (Price was an influence) from being the lower mainland. He was somebody that I watched growing up and he was somebody that a lot of people talked about being from B.C.,” Jarry said. “He was somebody that all of the younger generation looked up to.”
Price stopped a couple of Penguins breakaways in the first period. Brandon Tanev bolted past everyone from a defensive zone faceoff for a shorthanded breakaway chance. Bryan Rust also slipped behind the Montreal defenders for a short breakaway chance.
The loss effectively ended Montreal’s slim playoff hopes. Montreal trails Philadelphia by 10 points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, but Philadelphia has two games in hand, and Montreal has just 22 games remaining.
Penguins winger Zach Aston-Reese (6) slammed the puck into the empty net to cease competitive activities.