Kasperi Kapanen played his way out of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup early last month.
He was a healthy scratch nine times during a 10-game stretch, including one stretch of seven in a row.
And if Danton Heinen hadn’t lost his scoring touch, Kapanen might still be spending game nights in street clothes.
But he got back into uniform Tuesday, and seems intent on playing his way back to a prominent place in the team’s plans.
Kapanen recorded his second career hat trick during the Penguins’ 6-2 victory against St. Louis at PPG Paints Arena, pushing his output for the past four periods to four goals.
Now, the Penguins’ can’t expect him to maintain that pace, but his play of late does underscore that Kapanen’s capable of being a significant contributor when his game is in synch.
He’s consistently venturing into high-traffic areas — the NHL’s official play-by-play credited him with scoring his first and third goals from eight feet each, his second from seven — and getting into position to take full advantage of his offensive instincts and abilities.
“He’s trying to play the game the right way,” Mike Sullivan said. “He’s doing a lot of the little things that add up to winning.”
Which is precisely what the Penguins were hoping for when they brought Kapanen, who scored the game-winner in their 4-3 victory against Vegas Thursday, back from Toronto in 2020.
Kapanen was not the only Penguins forward to have a breakout night.
Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker had been scoreless in the previous six games, but Rust had one goal and three assists and Zucker had a goal and two assists.
They have won two games in a row and raised their record to 13-8-4.
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang sat out his third consecutive game after suffering a stroke Monday, while forward Jordan Kyrou, who leads the Blues with nine goals, did not play because of a non-Covid illness.
The Penguins got a strong start, recording the first seven shots of the game, and took a 1-0 lead on what was effectively, though not technically, a power-play goal.
Kapanen was positioned at the left side of the crease and knocked a cross-ice from P.O Joseph past Blues goalie Jordan Binnington at 6:58. The puck crossed the goal line two seconds after a hooking minor against St. Louis’ winger Tyler Pitlick expired, but Pitlick did not have enough time to get involved in the play.
Rust made it 2-0 at 11:59, when he beat Binnington from inside the left circle. He also got the second assist on Kapanen’s first goal.
The Blues countered quickly, however, as Pavel Buchnevich scored from well outside the right dot at 12:47, on a shot that hit Tristan Jarry on its way into the net.
The Penguins’ power play got another chance when Blues winger Ivan Barbashev was sent off for tripping at 14:56, and made the most of the opportunity.
Kapanen, who had one goal in his first 14 games this season, scored his third in two periods just one second before the man-advantage was to end, flipping the puck past Binnington from between the crease and the right circle.
Although Binnington obviously had trouble stopping pucks in the opening period — three of the Penguins’ 15 shots then eluded him — he did a great job of stopping Jason Zucker with 27.7 seconds to go before the intermission.
Zucker was skating around the St. Louis net when Binnington smacked him in the face with his glove, sending Zucker careening into the boards.
Zucker was shaken up and went to the locker room. Binnington was assessed a double-minor for high-sticking, which was an interesting call, considering that his stick had nothing to do with the play.
Those penalties were waved off after a video review, which was understandable since high-sticking had nothing to do with the play. NHL regulations apparently do not allow the nature of an infraction to be changed.
Zucker was back — with a vengeance — for the start of the second period, beating Binnington from the left side of the slot at 1:51 for his first goal in seven games.
Binnington was given a 10-minute misconduct for his behavior after Zucker scored, but the issue was moot because Blues coach Craig Berube replaced him with Penguins alum Thomas Greiss after the Zucker goal.
Vladimir Tarasenko got St. Louis back to within two by beating Jarry on a breakaway at 8:22, but Kapanen steered a Rust pass by Greiss during a power play at 10:20 to complete his hat trick and put the Penguins up, 5-2.
“I’m really happy for him,” Zucker said. “He’s been working extremely hard all year. He’s such a skilled player. It’s good to see him … especially getting the ones around the net.”
Kapanen’s third was the second man-advantage goal in two games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had failed to score any during the previous six games.
Sidney Crosby put an exclamation point on the victory by scoring an empty-netter at 15:12, stretching his scoring streak to five games.