PITTSBURGH — The NHL’s longest active playoff streak is still alive.
Phil Kessell scored twice, Sidney Crosby added a goal and two assists and Matt Murray stopped 33 shots as the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched a post-season berth for the 13th straight year with a 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.
Jake Guenztel added his 39th for Pittsburgh, which welcomed centre Evgeni Malkin and defenceman Kris Letang back into the lineup by racing past the Red Wings to extend a playoff run that began in 2007.
The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups and appeared in a Cup final during that span. While they’re hardly the favourites following an uneven regular season that forced them to wait until their 81st game to earn a spot in the 16-team tournament, they’ll have a chance to hit reset when the Eastern Conference quarterfinals begin next week.
Matt Puempel scored his first NHL goal in more than two years for the Red Wings. Jimmy Howard finished with 43 saves, but couldn’t quite duplicate his spectacular performance in a victory over the Penguins on Tuesday as Detroit’s six-game winning streak came to a halt.
The rebuilding Red Wings, who reached the playoffs every year from 1991-2016, have long since been eliminated from the post-season. Yet they provided the Penguins with a fair amount of anxiety following a decisive 4-1 win in Detroit on Tuesday.
Pittsburgh wanted to avoid heading into Saturday’s regular season finale with things still up in the air. For the first time a while, the Penguins took the ice somewhere close to full strength. Malkin — who missed eight games with an upper-body injury — and Letang — who sat out 15 of Pittsburgh’s previous 18 games with an upper-body injury of his own — both looked rusty in their return.
A revitalized Kessel and another dash of brilliance from the top line made sure it didn’t matter.
Puempel gave the Red Wings an early lead when he deflected Filip Hronek’s shot by Murray 7:35 into the game for his first goal since Jan. 23, 2017, when Puempel was playing for the New York Rangers.
The game turned, however, when Murray made a sprawling stop on a breakaway by Martin Frk midway through the opening period. The save seemed to give the Penguins a jolt, and Guentzel scored shortly thereafter, a shot from the slot that beat Howard 10:43 into the first.
Kessel collected his 26th and maybe easiest goal of the season 18:18 into the first when he stood all alone at the left post and pushed a loose puck by Howard into the open net. His 27th came 15:32 into the second when he ripped a shot from above the left circle, just his second goal at even strength since Jan. 30.
Murray’s steady play made sure the lead stood and Crosby provided some insurance 6:36 into the third when he snapped a 10-game goal drought by standing just outside the crease and jamming a shot by Kessel over the goal line.
NOTES: Penguins C Matt Cullen played in his 1,515th game, passing Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman for 19th on the NHL’s all-time list. … Malkin had an assist in 18:50. Letang skated a team-high 25:52. … Detroit F Tyler Bertuzzi was held without a point to end his franchise-record streak of games with at least three points at four. … The Red Wings went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 2 for 4.
Red Wings: Wrap up 2018-19 at home Saturday against Buffalo.
Penguins: Finish the regular season at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press