PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Penguins’ quest for a three-peat is officially on.
Patric Hornqvist picked up his 200th career goal and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions clinched their 12th straight playoff berth with a 5-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.
Phil Kessel, Riley Sheahan, Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin also scored for Pittsburgh, which dominated the largely listless Canadiens to improve to 17-1-1 in their last 19 games at PPG Paints Arena. Matt Murray finished with 24 saves for the Penguins, who swept their season series with Montreal for only the second time in franchise history.
Jeff Petry and Jonathan Droui scored for the Canadiens, who lost for the fifth time in seven games. Antti Niemi made 28 stops but Montreal couldn’t handle the league’s top-ranked power play.
The Penguins went 3 for 5 with the man advantage, including Kessel and Sheahan scoring less than two minutes apart in the third period to blow open a one-goal game. Pittsburgh pulled within three points of first-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals visit the Penguins on Sunday night.
Niemi actually began the season as the Penguins’ top backup after Marc-Andre Fleury was traded to Las Vegas and Murray became fully entrenched at the top spot. The plan lasted all of a month. Niemi found himself on waivers in late October after going 0-3 with a 7.50 goals against average, all of the losses coming on the road.
While Niemi has rediscovered his game in Montreal, perhaps it’s fitting the Penguins reached the postseason with their former teammate – however briefly it lasted – in the opposing net. Niemi’s awful numbers in Pittsburgh weren’t entirely his fault. Niemi’s struggles came in part to some lethargic play in front of him. Though coach Mike Sullivan claimed it wasn’t a hangover from two long postseason runs, the Penguins treaded for the first three months of the season before getting it going in January.
The team Niemi faced on Saturday still has some issues in its own end, but the Penguins also have the kind of firepower few can match.
The proof came during a 5-minute stretch in which they scored three goals. Sheary rifled a wrist shot from the slot into the net 9:41 into the first, just 59 seconds after Petry gave the Canadiens the lead. Hornqvist put Pittsburgh in front 37 seconds later with his 17th of the season and came in typical fashion for the bruising forward. He planted himself in front of the Montreal net and flipped home a backup past Price.
Hagelin finished the barrage by banking the puck off Niemi’s back from behind the net. Though Drouin’s 13th of the season with 10 seconds left in the first brought Montreal within one, the Canadiens never really came close to tying it.
Their best chance came in the third period but Artturi Lehkonen flubbed a shorthanded breakaway. The Penguins went back the other way and Kessel’s shot deflected off a Montreal player and into the net for his 31st.
NOTES: Penguins F Derick Brassard missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury. … Pittsburgh has won five straight overall against Montreal. … The Penguins are now 9-7-2 on the first night of back-to-backs this season. … Pittsburgh C Sidney Crosby’s five-game goal streak ended, though he did have one assist. … The Penguins’ 12-year playoff run is a franchise record. The team reached the postseason 11 straight times from 1990-2001.
Canadiens: Host New Jersey on Sunday. The teams have split their first two games, each winning on home ice.
Penguins: will try to take the season series from Washington on Sunday night. Pittsburgh won two of the first three meetings.
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