PITTSBURGH — Olli Maatta and Matt Cullen scored 11 seconds apart in the first period, Matt Murray stopped 33 shots and the surging Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 on Friday night for their eighth straight victory.
Maatta picked up his first goal since last March when his power-play goal beat Connor Hellebuyck 14:19 into the first period and Cullen added his fourth when Zach Aston-Reese’s centring pass went airborne and caromed off Cullen’s left shoulder and into the net. Dominik Simon also scored for Pittsburgh, picking up his sixth of the season when what appeared to be a spectacular save by Hellebuyck was overturned on replay.
Murray made the lead stand up to extend his personal winning streak to seven, tying a career best. One point out of the Eastern Conference cellar in mid-November, the Penguins have won 10 of 11 overall to close in on defending Stanley Cup champion Washington in the competitive Metropolitan Division.
Hellebuyck finished with 29 saves for Winnipeg but the Jets remained winless in Pittsburgh since 2007, when the Jets played in Atlanta.
Pittsburgh’s eight-game run is the longest since it won eight in a row from March 26-April 7, 2016. The Penguins captured the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup that season and after stumbling through the early portion of the schedule, they appear ready to contend well into the spring again.
Murray’s return to form certainly helps. The 24-year-old spent much of October and November struggling with his form. He’s been dominant since returning from a 13-game absence on Dec. 15, with a 1.27 goals against average and a .961 save percentage.
The goaltending has been so solid Pittsburgh hasn’t needed much luck. The Penguins got some anyway against the Central Division-leading Jets. Winnipeg came in 8-1 in its last nine road games but that momentum stopped — as it always seems to — in Pittsburgh.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has been imploring his team to shoot the puck more, and the typically reticent Maatta obliged with a relatively harmless looking slap shot from the point in the first period that deflected off Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler and by Hellebuyck to put Pittsburgh in front. The buzz from Maatta’s first regular season goal in 57 games hadn’t subsided when the goal lamp went off again.
The Penguins won the faceoff, went into the Winnipeg zone when Aston Reese threw the puck to the front of the net. It sailed into the air, smacked Cullen — who had turned his head away from the goal to avoid getting hit in the face — and found its way by a stunned Hellebuyck to make it 2-0.
The Jets carried the play for much of the second period in an attempt to get back in it but Murray stood firm and the Penguins extended their lead despite a magnificent effort by Hellebuyck. The Penguins came in on the rush and Evgeni Malkin slid the puck over to Simon, who redirected the puck toward the open net. The shot nicked the far post and Hellebuyck reached out to snatch it with his glove.
The call on the ice was a save but following a lengthy review — one that included the 552nd consecutive sellout chanting “goal” — officials ruled Hellebuyck caught the puck behind the goal-line to give the Penguins a three-goal cushion. Kris Letang finished the Jets off with an empty-net goal with 3:22 to go.
NOTES: Penguins captain Sidney Crosby’s five-game multi-point streak ended. Crosby did appear in his 902nd career game. He will tie Hall of Famer and team owner Mario Lemieux’s franchise record of 903 games on Sunday night against Chicago. … Pittsburgh D Jamie Oleksiak returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion against Washington on Dec. 19. … The Penguins went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Jets went 0 of 1.
Jets: Begin a stretch of 5 of 6 at home when they host Dallas on Sunday.
Penguins: Will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion squad Sunday when the Blackhawks visit.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press