FSN SOUTH (TV)—Justin Peters has some new bruises.
Carolina, which had beaten the New Jersey Devils the night before on Boxing Day in Raleigh, saw its modest win streak halted at two games. But Cam Ward, who sat out the second half of the back-to-back games in Pittsburgh, still has a goal-scoring streak. The last Canes player to touch the puck before Ilya Kovalchuk's desperation pass skittered all the way down the ice into his team's empty net, Ward became the first goalie in franchise history—and just the tenth in league history—to be credited with a goal.
But even that kind of luck wouldn't have helped the Canes in Pittsburgh. Steve Sullivan's power-play goal 1:18 into the third broke a 1-1 tie, and Pascal Dupuis scored 70 seconds later for a lead the Canes couldn't surmount. Mustering only 18 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, Carolina looked like a team that had played elsewhere the night before, facing a team that had enjoyed two off-nights at home.
Tim Brent and Tuomo Ruutu notched goals for the Canes, extending Ruutu's goal streak to three games. James Neal and Jordan Staal also scored for the Penguins.
Neal, who potted his 21st, is just one goal off the league lead. Two assists by Neal's linemate Evgeni Malkin put him just two points off the league scoring lead. With Chris Kunitz, they harried the Canes all night.
"They're a dominating pair," coach Kirk Muller said of Malkin and Neal. "I thought Sutter's line did a pretty good job in the first, containing them for the most part. I thought we were fine as far as that match-up was concerned."
"But they've got some good players over there, and you can roll them. They can pop Malkin in at the right times and get away from the match-ups. Ironically, the best shift we had in the game, we ended up getting scored on."
That would be Neal's goal in the second period, as the game neared its midpoint. After Brent staked the Canes to a lead in the first period by tipping in a Tim Gleason shot-pass, the Penguins shook off their holiday malaise and attacked in waves. The Canes held them off for the most part, rarely getting the puck into Penguin ice until an extended siege that forced Fleury to poke-check a puck off Jiri Tlusty's stick right in front of the goal.
But the save sparked a rush. Malkin fired the puck up the middle to a breaking Kunitz, who dipped his shoulder and split Gleason and Bryan Allen to go in alone. Peters held his ground and forced Kunitz to his left, but the winger managed to foist the puck between the goalie's legs. It fluttered in the blue ice as Allen and Neal skidded in, spraying snow, and the puck ended up in the goal. Replays clearly showed Neal's stick on the puck amid a forest of legs.
When Chad LaRose took his second penalty of the game—both on iffy calls—just 38 seconds into the final frame, the home team wasted no time taking over the game.
Malkin, who switches restlessly from half-wall to half-wall throughout the Penguins' power play, skated up the boards to try to find some space to operate at the point, but Gleason stayed in his jersey. Instead of backhanding the puck blindly back down the boards on a cycle, however, Malkin stopped the puck a foot inside the blueline and pivoted around it toward the boards—skating out of the zone in the process—in order to carry it back down the boards with his head up, looking for a teammate to pass to. Gleason couldn't follow, and Malkin had his space once he reached the circle.
The Russian waited for Brandon Sutter to shift his stick to the wrong side of his body to fire a perfect diagonal pass to Sullivan, who had crept down from the opposite point. Sullivan one-timed the puck into the far side of the goal just as Peters slid across to face him, shooting through the space that the goalie had just vacated.
It was a cathartic goal for the Penguins, who finally had a lead after out-shooting the Canes 38-10 to that point. And they immediately extended it.
Tyler Kennedy fed Dupuis on a two-on-one created when Justin Faulk fell in the neutral zone, leaving Jay Harrison all alone to defend. Dupuis waited for Peters to lunge before roofing the puck over him.
If the game wasn't out of reach there, it certainly was about five minutes later as Jordan Staal kept the puck on a two-on-one with Dupuis, wristing a mid-range shot before Faulk made a move in front of Peters. The goalie's glove was late, and the Penguins led 4-1.
The Canes got their first power play of the night at that point of the game, and Ruutu nearly tipped in a feed from Alexei Ponikarovsky but Fleury made one of the few good saves needed on this night. Fleury's real opponent was boredom, and Ruutu took advantage of that—as Brent had in the first—to get the Canes' second goal.
Fleury's not known for his puck-handling prowess, but he likes to dart behind the net to play pucks, even in traffic. Brent's goal came as Fleury had returned to the crease but hot completely set himself. And Ponikarovsky recognized a similar opportunity. He anticipated the goalie's attempted clear up the boards and tipped it to Jussi Jokinen who fed Ruutu at the netmouth. Ruutu lifted his team-leading 14th goal over the netminder before he could re-establish himself in the crease.
Down only 4-2, the Canes got their second power play when Neal slashed Ruutu's stick in half to deny a shot, and the Finn nearly tipped in a Harrison point shot, but Fleury was there.
Carolina pulled Peters to get a six-on-four advantage, but a stickless Zbynek Michalek blocked two Sutter shots from the dot and the clock ran out.
The Canes return home for a tilt with Toronto on Thursday night before heading to Tampa for a New Year's Eve matinee.