Pens sweep March
PITTSBURGH – Despite losing their captain, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to finish the month unbeaten.
Pittsburgh, gearing for a run at the Stanley Cup, welcomed star forward Jarome Iginla to the lineup, but lost Sidney Crosby early in the first period after he was hit in the mouth with a puck.
Still, the Penguins managed to overcome the injury to Crosby on Saturday for their 15th straight victory as Matt Cooke and James Neal scored third-period goals during a 2-0 victory against the New York Islanders.
“It’s very tough to see that happen to anybody on the ice, but this is your teammate and Sid’s such a great player,” Iginla said. “It’s a very, very unfortunate play.”
Tomas Vokoun made 35 saves as Pittsburgh moved within two wins of the NHL record of 17 straight victories set by Mario Lemieux and the 1992-93 Penguins.
“The shutout is nice, but preserving the winning streak is even better,” Vokoun said. “It’s been great.”
It might be tough without Crosby.
Coach Dan Bylsma said Crosby lost several teeth and needed oral surgery. He did not know if Crosby would miss additional time and wasn’t sure if the injury affected his jaw.
“I just know he had some issues with his teeth,” Bylsma said. “Just from the replay I know that.”
Crosby, with 15 goals and 56 points, has enjoyed a resurgence this season, leading Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos by 10 points in the NHL scoring race.
Another head injury for Crosby, however, has to concern the Penguins.
Crosby has missed considerable time the past two years because of concussions. He was sidelined the final 41 games in 2011 and the Stanley Cup playoffs, and skipped most of the 2012 regular season as symptoms lingered.
“I think every time that type of thing happens to a player you think about it,” Bylsma said.
Crosby skated off the ice with a towel covering his mouth after a slap shot by teammate Brooks Orpik deflected off a stick and hit the NHL scoring leader in the face. Crosby, who immediately fell to the ice and tossed his stick in the air, did not return.
“When you see the replay, he had no chance to move,” Iginla said. “Guys were definitely checking to see how he was doing.”
Pittsburgh went 15-0-0 in March, the first perfect month in league history. The Penguins also won a franchise best 12th straight at home.
The Penguins, with a win at home against Buffalo on Tuesday, will have a chance to tie the record of 17 straight wins the following night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
“It’s exciting for our team, exciting for the players,” Neal said. “We want to keep the streak going.”
Iginla, a six-time All-Star, was acquired by the Penguins from Calgary early Thursday and he arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday night. He was in the lineup a game earlier than originally anticipated.
The move for Iginla, who waived his no-trade clause to come to Pittsburgh, was the Penguins’ third big deal in a week. Pittsburgh also obtained former Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow and defenseman Doug Murray from San Jose.
The record crowd at Consol Energy Center responded with a huge ovation when Iginla was announced as part of the starting lineup.
Iginla, who played right wing for most of his career in Calgary, skated the left side on a line with reigning NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and Neal, an All-Star forward.
The excitement quickly turned to concern 1:28 into the game when Crosby left the ice.
Pittsburgh appeared stunned without its captain, and the Islanders took advantage, getting the first eight shots of the game, but came up empty against Vokoun.
Vokoun earned his second consecutive shutout. Vokoun who hasn’t been scored on in more than 162 minutes, relieved injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury during a 1-0 victory Tuesday against Montreal.
Vokoun’s biggest save came in the third period, stopping Islanders speedy forward Michael Grabner on a breakaway.
Cooke scored his sixth goal of the season at 8:10, picking up the rebound from defenseman Deryk Engelland’s shot at the top of the crease, and firing a spinning shot behind Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
“I went to the net and the puck hit me in the stomach,” Cooke said. “I stayed with it, tried to settle it and get it on net.”
Neal scored at 13:04, firing a wrist shot past Nabokov. It was his 18th goal.
The Islanders entered Saturday’s game tied with the New York Rangers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Islanders, who handed Pittsburgh one of four losses on home ice, ended up losing for the third time during the Penguins’ 15-game winning streak.
“They’ve proven they can play without Crosby or Malkin, so it’s not so much that,” Islanders forward John Tavares said. “It’s more about us and executing and doing what we need to do to win hockey games.”
The Penguins received the biggest boost from their penalty kill.
Chris Kunitz, the team’s second-leading scorer, was assessed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct late in the second period for checking Islanders center Josh Bailey from behind.
Bailey initiated contact, but Kunitz got the better of the play, sending Bailey dangerously into the boards. Bailey did not return.
“I saw the hit, I’m not going to comment on the hit,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “Fortunately (Bailey) is OK, but obviously stiff.”
The major penalty turned into a two-man advantage for the Islanders three minutes later when Orpik was whistled for tripping, but Pittsburgh successfully killed off both penalties.
“We had blocked shots, clears, we won some battles at the net,” Bylsma said. “That’s a long time to kill a 5-on-3 against a really good power play team.”
“Every time we get a big kill, it’s the loudest our crowd has been,” Cooke said. “The crowd was intense and it definitely energized us.”
NOTES: The Penguins have allowed nine goals in their past 11 games. … Paul Martin will have surgery Sunday on a broken bone and will miss six weeks. The Penguins are already without Kris Letang, the NHL’s leading scorer among defenseman, who is out seven to 10 days with a broken toe. … Orpik appeared in his 621st career game, tying Ron Stackhouse for fifth on the team’s games played list and first among defensemen.