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Blackhawks Down: Penguins Pull Out of Nosedive, 4-1



Maybe it’s all Jake Guentzel’s fault that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff hopes have been fading, after all.

Perhaps the guy who was tied for the team scoring lead and was on pace to get more than 30 goals again was the culprit behind their struggles of late.

OK, probably not.

Nonetheless, the Penguins made it through their first game without Guentzel, who will be out until at least March 10 because of an unspecified upper-body injury, relatively unscathed, picking up a 4-1 victory over Chicago Thursday night at the United Center.

The victory snapped the Penguins’ streak of three consecutive losses in regulation and raised their record to 24-20-7.

While Guentzel’s absence sparked most of the buzz around the Penguins, an addition to Chicago’s lineup that no one had anticipated until Thursday morning generated lots of attention around the league.

Connor Bedard, the Blackhawks’ franchise cornerstone, went back on active duty after missing the previous 14 games because of a broken jaw.

He did not participate in a full-contact practice before returning, and even though Chicago’s decision-makers surely are away that the big hitters on the Penguins’ roster could carpool to games on a unicycle, having him come back in that situation was perplexing. Especially when the Blackhawks aren’t competing for anything except their place in this year’s draft lottery.

Bedard, who wore a full face shield to protect his jaw, turned in an impressive performance and set up Chicago’s lone goal.

Guentzel’s place with Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust was taken by Rickard Rakell, and the reconfigured top line didn’t need long to have an impact.

Crosby started the game by controlling the opening faceoff against Bedard, but it wasn’t the highlight of his first shift.

That would come 15 seconds later, when Crosby directed a Marcus Pettersson shot past Blackhawks goalie Arvid Soderblom. The second assist went to Rakell, who had failed to record a point in seven of the previous eight games.

Crosby’s goal was the 406th at even-strength in his career, a franchise record. It also was the ninth time he’s gotten a goal in the first 30 seconds of a game, most in NHL history.

And it was a pretty good hint of the exceptional performance Crosby would turn in over the course of the evening.

Although the Pittsburgh Penguins did little to build on their strong start, Reilly Smith padded their lead with what proved to be the game-winner at 12:40.

Drew O’Connor picked off a Bedard pass in the Penguins’ zone, then carried the puck into the Chicago end before sliding a pass that was deflected to Smith, who stuck a backhander under the crossbar from the inner edge of the right circle for his 10th of the season and second in the past five games.

The Penguins got the only power play of the opening period when Blackhawks defenseman Jaycob Megna was sent off for tripping O’Connor with 55.3 seconds to go before the intermission. Presumably to the surprise of no one, they did not score while he was in the penalty box.

With Guentzel missing, the Penguins unveiled a new No. 1 power-play unit, featuring Erik Karlsson, Evgeni Malkin, Lars Eller, Crosby and Rust.

Chicago got its first shot since there was 6:05 left in the opening period at 8:22 of the second, and it ended up behind Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic.

Philipp Kurashev scored it, steering in a feed from Bedard to cap a sequence that began with a Penguins turnover near their blue line.

It proved to be the only one of Chicago’s 28 shots that eluded Nedeljkovic, who had a strong game.

Chicago, which entered the game with a league-worst success rate of 12.4 percent on the power play, got its first chance with the extra man when Penguins forward Colin White picked up an ill-considered cross-checking minor in the neutral zone at 14:38.

The Blackhawks generated four shots on Nedeljkovic while White was off, but were unable to score a tying goal.

The Penguins had gotten more tentative after Kurashev scored, but Crosby gave them renewed confidence — and some badly needed breathing room — at 5:51 of the third.

He was left alone at the right side of the crease and knocked in a Rakell feed from the inner edge of the left circle for his 30th of the season — the 12th time he’s reached that milestone — and a 3-1 lead. The second assist went to Pettersson.

Although Rakell got a minor for holding Bedard with 80 seconds left in regulation, Chicago couldn’t take advantage and Rust sealed the victory by scoring into an empty net with 49.7 seconds to play.

It was his 15th of the season and third in as many games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will have a scheduled day off Friday. They have a workout planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.