PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh left winger Chris Kunitz notched two first-period power-play goals and center Sidney Crosby tallied the game-winner with just over one minute remaining in regulation to push the Penguins to a 4-3 victory over the struggling New York Islanders at CONSOL Energy Center on Friday night.
"It's frustrating to battle that hard against probably one of the best teams in the league and come away with nothing," said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano.
The victory gave the Penguins 15 wins on the season, the most in the Eastern Conference. Conversely, the loss was the Islanders' sixth straight road defeat and put them 11 points behind the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division standings.
Crosby scored the winner when he was inexplicably left all alone in front of the net with 1:16 left in regulation. After taking a pass from winger Pascal Dupuis from behind the net, Crosby pushed his 250th career goal past Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin to seal the game for the Penguins.
The Penguins opened the scoring with Islanders center Peter Regin off for concealing the puck. Center Evgeni Malkin gathered the puck along the left wing boards and executed a backhand, cross-ice pass to Crosby positioned near the top of the right faceoff circle. Without hesitation, Crosby threw a diagonal pass to Chris Kunitz at the left post before the left winger shoveled it into the net.
The goal came at 4:04 of the first period and gave Malkin assists in nine of his last 10 games, including 13 in the month of November, which is tops in the NHL.
The Penguins struck again with another power-play goal at 7:55 of the second. It was Kunitz again, this time taking a pass from left winger James Neal before one-timing it from the right wing circle past Poulin's glove hand. The goal was Kunitz's 11th of the campaign.
"Obviously, you look at the weapons that they have and the way our (penalty kill) has been going we've got to find a way to stay out of (the box) whether we like the calls or not," said Islanders captain John Tavares.
Despite the shots being even at 13 after one, the Penguins carried the play in the first frame. However, the Islanders came out for the second a more inspired group and halved the Penguins' lead just 1:46 into the stanza when left winger Thomas Vanek unleashed a slap shot from the right wing faceoff dot that handcuffed Pittsburgh goaltender Jeff Zatkoff and snuck through his blocker side. Vanek had missed the previous five contests due to an upper-body injury.
In what would prove to be a seesaw period, Malkin whacked a shot under Poulin less than five minutes later to put the Penguins back ahead 3-1. The goal snapped a career-long 15-game goalless drought for the Pittsburgh center and it was evident that a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders as he uncharacteristically banged his stick against the glass to celebrate the goal.
"We were really happy for him," said Crosby. "He had a ton of chances. We knew it was a matter of time."
The Islanders got back to within one when Penguins defenseman Kris Letang made an ill-advised pass attempt to center Brian Gibbons. The pass never made it to Gibbons and the Islanders broke back the other way on a two-on-one with Letang trapped in the Islanders' zone. With nothing but time and space, Islanders right winger Colin McDonald corralled the puck just inside the Penguins' blue line, skated down the right wing and beat Zatkoff with a wrist shot low to the ice and just inside the left post at 11:33.
"At that point in time we were not in a game we wanted to be played regardless of the score," said Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma.
The Islanders tied the game at 3 just over a minute later when Vanek recorded his second of the game by finding a loose puck in a scramble in front and backhanding it into an open net, as Zatkoff was far from his crease as a result of traffic in front. "They scored three pretty quick ones, said Zatkoff. "You just have to take a step back, take a deep breath and regroup and that's what we did as a team."
Zatkoff made 32 saves to earn his second win, while Poulin turned aside 30 Pittsburgh shots in suffering the loss. Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald and center Frans Nielsen, along with Pittsburgh right winger Beau Bennett all left the game with various injuries and will be re-evaluated on Saturday.
NOTES: The game featured the two players who have amassed the most hits in the NHL this season, Islanders LW Matt Martin and Penguins LW Tanner Glass. ... The Penguins lost 93 man-games to injury this season. The Islanders lost 48 man-games to injury. ... Scratches for the Penguins were D Robert Bortuzzo and RW Matt D'Agostini. Scratches for the Islanders were D Aaron Ness, LW Eric Boulton and C Brock Nelson. ... Both teams are in action again on Saturday night. The Penguins will travel to Montreal to face the Canadiens and the Islanders will travel across the Keystone State to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers. ... The official attendance was 18,515, the Penguins' 299th consecutive sellout.