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Penguins Keep Lightning In a Bottle (Barely), 5-4



A week ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ challenge of qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs looked to be a task worthy of Sisyphus.

You know, the guy in Greek mythology consigned to pushing a boulder uphill — only to have it roll back down that hill — for all eternity as punishment for tricking Hades, ruler of the underworld.

Well, seven days later, they’re getting a lot closer to the mountaintop than Sisyphus ever did.

They defeated Tampa Bay, 5-4, at PPG Paints Arena for their fourth consecutive victory. It raised their record to 36-30-11 and moved them, at least temporarily, into a tie with Philadelphia and the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division and the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

They outplayed Tampa Bay for two periods at PPG Paints Arena Saturday before wilting in the first half of the third.

The Lightning rallied from a 4-1 deficit going into the third with three goals in the first 10 minutes, 45 seconds, but Michael Bunting put the Penguins back in front to stay at 14:32 by taking a feed from Evgeni Malkin and backhanding in a shot from the front lip of the crease.

The Penguins, who already had given up two power-play goals, were shorthanded for the final 96 seconds of regulation after Marcus Pettersson took a delay-of-game minor, but managed to hold off the Lightning.

The final 13:49 of the third period was played with one referee, Tom Chmielewski, after Steve Kozari appeared to be badly injured in a neutral-zone collision with Tampa Bay defenseman Haydn Fleury, who also was shaken up and had to be helped to the locker room. Kozari was stretchered off the ice.

“It was a scary collision,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sidney Crosby isn’t the only reason the Penguins are still in contention for a playoff berth with less than two weeks to go in the regular season, but he’s the biggest.

And it didn’t take long for him to show why.

He staked the Penguins to a 1-0 lead at 4:20, scoring one of the easiest of his 40 goals this season.

Crosby was hovering near the left side of the crease and got a deft feed from Bryan Rust during a 2-on-1 break against Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh. Crosby received the pass on his forehand and pulled it onto his backhand before tucking a shot behind Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Erik Karlsson got the second assist on that goal, which made Crosby just the seventh player in NHL history to record a 40-goal season when he was 36 or older. The others: Alex Ovechkin, Teemu Selanne, Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Brendan Shanahan and Johnny Bucyk.

About a minute after he scored, Crosby dropped Lightning defenseman Emil Lilleberg with a hard hit in the left-wing corner of the Tampa Bay zone in response to Lilleberg felling Drew O’Connor with a solid check.

Tampa Bay didn’t record a shot on goal until 11:51. and the Penguins finished the period with a 14-6 edge in those.

They were unable to add to their one-goal lead, however, because Vasilevskiy made several outstanding saves.

He gloved a Bunting shot from inside the left circle while the Penguins were on the only power play for either club during the first 20 minutes, then denied Emil Bemstrom on a breakaway at 13:15.

The Penguins got their second chance with the extra man when Fleury was called for cross-checking Bunting at 1:30 of the second period, but they failed to record a shot while he was in the box.

The Penguins finally solved Vasilevskiy again at 6:06, when Malkin was on the inner edge of the right circle and deflected in a shot from the right point by Karlsson. Bunting got the second assist.

Tampa Bay got that goal back during a power play at 12:15, as Steven Stamkos hammered a slap shot past Penguins goalie Alex Nedeljkovic from just below the left dot.

After Stamkos’ goal put the Penguins on their heels for several minutes, they reclaimed the momentum at 14:39. Kris Letang made it 3-1 on a wrist shot from the right point that somehow made it through Vasilevskiy.

While it was unclear whether O’Connor got a piece of the puck on its way to the net, Letang was credited with his ninth of the season.

Malkin gave the Penguins a bit more breathing room at 16:57, taking a feed from Bunting, who was below the goal line, before knocking his own rebound by Vasilevskiy for his 25th of the season (and second consecutive two-goal game at home with his parents in the crowd).

The Penguins took a 4-1 lead into the third period, but Tampa Bay cut into their advantage 25 seconds after play resumed, as Nick Paul beat Nedeljkovic from the left dot.

The delay that followed the Kozari-Fleury collision didn’t seem to faze the Lightning, and Anthony Duclair got them within one at 7:23.

Stamkos made it 4-4 with another power-play goal at 10:45, while Pettersson was serving a tripping minor.

Several hours after the game, the Pittsburgh Penguins called off the practice that had been scheduled for noon Sunday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.