The first half of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season is over.
Their hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs — and perhaps winning a round for the first time since 2018 — are not, but there’s no rush for them to begin selling tickets for the postseason, either.
The Penguins’ 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina at PNC Arena in Raleigh Saturday night dropped their record to 20-15-6, and while they still have visual contact with the Eastern Conference playoff field, they’re going to have to string together victories more consistently than they have during most of the past three months if they hope to secure a spot in it.
Their current point total projects to 92 over 82 games; 95 is widely regarded as the number needed to get into the playoffs, although Florida secured the East’s second wild-card with just 92 last spring.
Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce scored the game-winner from the top of the right circle at 1:41 of the extra period, his second goal of the night.
There’s nothing new about the Penguins losing to Carolina, especially in Raleigh, where they are 0-3-3 in their past six visits. Then again, the Hurricanes have had their way with a lot of opponents lately, going 10-1-4 in their past 15 games.
Although games between the Penguins and Carolina often are settled by one goal, the score in this one was close mostly because Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry turned in one of his best performances of the season. He stopped 32 shots, a healthy percentage of which came on high-quality scoring chances.
His Carolina counterpart, Antti Raanta, wasn’t tested quite as severely, but also played very well, turning aside 38 of 40 shots.
Radim Zohorna, a healthy scratch for the previous six games, returned to the Penguins’ lineup, filling a spot on the third line that was created when Reilly Smith was injured against Vancouver Thursday.
Colin White, recalled from the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre earlier in the day, was scheduled to be a healthy scratch, but was added to the lineup when fourth-line center Noel Acciari was a last-minute scratch.
Jarry, coming off a strong performance in relief of Alex Nedeljkovic against the Canucks, made several outstanding stops during the early minutes of play, beginning with a save on a Sebastian Aho breakaway 17 seconds after the opening faceoff. Aho’s scoring chance came after he intercepted a Sidney Crosby pass in the neutral zone.
He couldn’t hold off the Hurricanes forever, though, and Pesce put Carolina in front, 1-0, at 6:12, when his shot from above the right dot glanced off the left glove of Penguins center Lars Eller on its way to the net.
The Hurricanes still were dominating play as the middle of the period approached, and certainly did not need a break. Nonetheless, they got one when a puck traveling down the right-wing boards caromed off the skate of Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel and slid directly to Carolina forward Jordan Martinook, who was hovering near the Penguins’ net and punched his own rebound past Jarry.
Bryan Rust had the Penguins’ best scoring chance of the period 12 1/2 minutes in, as he drove down the right side, got around Pesce and went hard to the net, only to have Raanta reject his backhander.
Carolina defenseman Brent Burns was penalized for slashing Jake Guentzel at 14:51, but the Penguins’ power play lasted only 11 seconds before Erik Karlsson was called for slashing Hurricanes forward Seth Jarvis.
Jarry finished the period with 14 saves, of which one — heck, maybe even two — could reasonably be described as “routine.”
However, much as they had after a miserable start against Vancouver two nights earlier, the Penguins regrouped during the intermission and turned in a pretty solid second period.
They outshot Carolina, 16-9, then, but the power play that had failed to convert on four tries against the Canucks was shut out on three tries in the second period against the Hurricanes.
Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov was sent off for slashing Guentzel at 13:33 and holding Ryan Graves’ stick at 17:15, and the Hurricanes were caught with too many men on the ice at 18:48.
Those gave the Penguins a total of four opportunities with the extra man, during which they generated just two shots.
Raanta preserved Carolina’s two-goal lead with a sensational glove stop on Crosby from the inner edge of the right circle at 6:23 of the third, but Guentzel got the Penguins within one 22 seconds later, when he got a feed from Crosby and beat Raanta from inside that circle.
Rust got the other assist on that goal, Guentzel’s 19th.
And Rust wasn’t finished.
With 52.7 seconds left in regulation, he threw in a Karlsson rebound from low in the right circle to force overtime, the second time in three days that the Penguins scored in the final minute of the third period.
It was Rust’s first goal in 10 games and 11th of the season. Kris Letang got the second assist.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled to practice Sunday at noon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.