PITTSBURGH (AP) — Artemi Panarin and Richard Panik started a four-goal first period for Chicago, and the Blackhawks moved closer to locking up the Central Division title with a 5-1 victory over the short-handed Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.
Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa also scored during an explosive first period as the Blackhawks moved nine points clear of second-place Minnesota with five games left in the regular season. Tanner Nero added a breakaway goal in the third. Patrick Kane picked up two assists to move past Sidney Crosby and into second place in the NHL scoring race.
Corey Crawford stopped 31 shots for Chicago, which beat the Penguins in regulation on the road for the first time since 1997.
Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 31 saves but received little help outside of Bryan Rust’s third-period goal. The defending Stanley Cup champions saw their winless streak reach four games, and their chances to catch first-place Washington atop the Metropolitan Division took another hit.
Pittsburgh is struggling with the playoffs two weeks away while missing injured regulars Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Ron Hainsey, Jake Guentzel and Carl Hagelin. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are surging.
Chicago overwhelmed the Penguins seemingly from the opening faceoff, showcasing all the speed and creativity that have the Blackhawks looking like the best team in the Western Conference and a serious threat to add to the three Cups they’ve captured since 2010.
The Penguins started Fleury over Matt Murray, who has struggled recently while Fleury has regained his form since the team opted to hold onto him at the trading deadline. Given a chance to perhaps make serious inroads on Murray’s grasp of the No. 1 spot, Fleury instead spent the opening 20 minutes trying to contend with a seemingly endless series of odd-man rushes that left the Penguins flat-footed and the Blackhawks rolling.
Panarin opened the scoring 3:23 in when he banked in a shot from in close off Fleury’s right leg. The goal was the easy part. The hard part came courtesy of Kane, who darted behind the Pittsburgh net preparing to attempt a wraparound only to drop a backhand pass to Panarin at the left post. Fleury, believing Kane still had the puck, was caught looking the other way while Panarin executed the hockey version of a lay-up, gently flipping it off Fleury and into the net.
Panik doubled Chicago’s lead 14:39 into the first when he powered home a shot from the slot past Fleury’s outstretched glove. Kruger’s fourth of the year with 55 seconds left in the first came courtesy of a deft touch pass from Kane. Hossa finished off a 3-on-1 by firing it by Fleury with 16 seconds left, and Chicago’s 20 minute clinic was complete.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan switched up the lines but stuck with Fleury, who settled down, but by then the damage was already done.
NOTES: Chicago tied a franchise record with its 24th road win of the season. … The Blackhawks went 0 for 4 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 2. … The Penguins last dropped consecutive games by four goals on Jan. 3 and Jan. 5, 2009. … Pittsburgh’s last four-game winless streak came in Sullivan’s first four games on the job in December, 2015.
Blackhawks: Host Columbus on Friday. The Blue Jackets edged Chicago 3-2 on Oct. 21.
Penguins: Visit the New York Rangers on Friday. Pittsburgh has won two of the first three meetings this season.
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