PITTSBURGH — Phil Kessel won 18,000 fans a free Big Mac when he scored a power-play goal in the first period. Cheers and thank you chants rained down on Kessel who couldn’t help but laugh and his teammates couldn’t help but smile as the Pittsburgh Penguins finally clinched a playoff berth in Game 81 of 82. Kessel scored twice and the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings
Kessel scored the Penguins second and third goals (26, 27) and the Penguins earned their 13th consecutive trip to the playoffs. The Penguins need only one point in their final game to secure third place in the Metro Division; Carolina trails by two points and could surpass them with the ROW (Regulation Overtime Wins) tiebreaker if the Penguins lose their final game Saturday against the New York Rangers in regulation.
Swift action by Olli Maatta tied the game in the middle of the first period. Maatta swooped into the offensive zone to snag a loose puck and skated low in the zone. As Maatta went low, Penguins winger Jake Guentzel slipped to the front of the net. Maatta feathered a pass to Guentzel (39) who snapped the tying goal. Guentzel needs one more goal for his first 40-goal season.
The Penguins made an early statement with 18 shots and two goals in the first period. They could have scored several more.
“We came out hard. They got that first one but I thought we just kept going,” Sidney Crosby said. “We had some good zone time in the first there.”
The Penguins crashed the net for the remainder of the period but could not get a clean rebound as the puck seemed to bounce over their sticks at the last moment. Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard also made a few more 10-bell saves, as he did Tuesday night when the result was reversed.
More Penguins numerology surfaced late in the first period. In Game 81, Phil Kessel who of course wears No. 81 scored the Penguins second goal at 18:18. It was a power-play goal as Kessel showed up on the back door for an easy wrister into the open cage.
The Penguins power play also had familiar faces Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on the top unit. The Penguins have been without one or both of them for most games since Feb. 23.
“I think the impact they have is huge. Both guys are dominant players. It just changes the whole dynamic of our team,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “Our power play was big tonight. They got two goals and those guys are a big part of it.”
The Penguins managed to hold on for the first part of the second period. Detroit took most of the first 10 shots of the period and nearly set up an encampment in the Penguins zone. However, Penguins goalie Matt Murray smothered all 13 shots he faced and the Penguins again wrested control from Detroit later in the period.
And it was Kessel who fired the dagger late in the second period.
Evgeni Malkin who returned from a rib injury suffered on March 16 won an offensive zone faceoff. Kessel (27) adjusted the angle of his attack by skating to the top of the circle for an open shot lane then let rip a vintage wrist shot past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard.
There was no Big Mac for the second goal, instead, the Penguins had to settle for a trip to the playoffs. Just like the first period, the Penguins again fired 18 shots in the second period, too.
Detroit forward Matt Puempel scored the first goal of the game. Seven minutes into the game, Puempel (1) deflected a point shot by Filip Hronek.
Crosby had two assists and has 98 points this season. With a multi-point effort Saturday he would reach the 100-point mark for the first time since 2013-14.
Murray made 33 saves and improved to 29-14-5.
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