Zucker’s Late Goal Gives Penguins 3-1 Victory
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Pittsburgh Penguins played the first game of their annual Dads Trip Tuesday night.
For much of the evening, it seemed like a lot of them would be lucky their fathers didn’t send them to bed without dinner.
But despite turning in a sometimes dishwater-dull performance, the Penguins salvaged a 3-1 victory over a watered-down Nashville Predators lineup at Bridgestone Arena.
Jason Zucker got the game-winning goal at 18:21 of the third period, scoring his 17th of the season from the inner edge of the right circle.
Bryan Rust sealed the victory by scoring into an empty net with 6.4 seconds to go in regulation, as he lunged along the left-wing boards to swipe the puck while holding his stick with only his left hand.
The victory, coupled with the New York Islanders’ 2-1 shootout loss at Minnesota, moved the Penguins to within one point of the Islanders, who hold the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff field.
The Penguins, who have won three games in a row for the first time since December, have four games in hand on New York and hold a three-point edge over Buffalo and Florida, their closest pursuers for the second wild-card slot.
A few hours before the game, Nashville finalized a trade that sent Mattias Ekholm — who was the Predators’ second-best defenseman, only because he shared a locker room with Roman Josi — to Edmonton.
That meant Nashville didn’t have Ekholm or Tyson Barrie, the veteran defenseman it got in the deal, in its lineup for this game.
But although the Predators’ lineup looked significantly different than it did entering the past weekend — they traded Nino Niederreiter to Winnipeg Saturday, Tanner Jeannot to Tampa Bay Sunday and Ekholm today — Mike Sullivan said even departures of serious magnitude do not have a significant impact on the Penguins’ pregame preparations.
“It really doesn’t change the process we go through,” he said. “One of the things we try, in the preparation process for our guys, is just wrapping context around the team and where they’re at, what their mindset might be like in anticipation of what type of game we’re going to see. From our standpoint, the focus is more importantly on our team and the type of game we have to play to set ourselves up for success.”
That focus wasn’t terribly evident during the first period, however. Sidney Crosby won the opening faceoff, but that might have been the high point of those 20 minutes for the Penguins.
Tristan Jarry had to stop a breakaway by Mikael Granlund just 20 seconds into the game, as Nashville ran up a 16-9 edge in shots — only a late surge by the Penguins narrowed the difference to seven — and had by far the better scoring chances.
The closest the Penguins came to scoring was when Crosby put a shot off the post with about 7 1/2 minutes to go before the intermission.
The Predators got the only power play of the period when Jake Guentzel was called for hooking at 13:34, but they failed to get any of their three shots past Jarry.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were awarded two chances with the man-advantage during the first 4 1/2 minutes of the second period, but were unable to capitalize on either and the game eventually reached the second intermission without a goal being scored.
The Penguins did, however, turn in a more solid performance during the second, when they ran up a 17-5 edge in shots.
Former Penguins forward Mark Jankowski, recalled from Nashville’s farm team in Milwaukee earlier in the day in the wake of a series of moves by the parent club, broke a 0-0 tie at 7:01 of the third period.
He intercepted an ill-conceived pass by Kris Letang and skated down the slot unimpeded before throwing a shot past Jarry.
Just a few minutes later, however, Brock McGinn — who had been put on waivers earlier in the day — got on the scoresheet for the first time in 27 games when he hit Sidney Crosby with a long lead pass that sprung Crosby behind the Nashville defense.
Crosby beat Predators goalie Juuse Saros from the left hash 11 minutes into the period for his 27th of the season. Rickard Rakell got the second assist.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have scheduled a travel day Wednesday, when they will fly to Tampa ahead of their game against the Lightning Thursday at 7:08 p.m.