PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t happy with their lackluster play in the first period after a three-day holiday break.
Then, Phil Kessel and the power play changed everything.
Kessel scored two power-play goals, Derick Brassard added two goals and the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-2 on Thursday.
“Just the plays he made tonight is elite,” Brassard said of Kessel. “It’s up there with the tops in the league. He’s going to win you some games like that.”
Kessel scored twice in the second period and raised his season total to 16 goals. He moved into 20th place all-time with his 97th career power-play goal by an American, passing Chris Drury. Brassard now has six goals, and Patric Hornqvist scored his 13th of the season as Pittsburgh won its fourth straight game, matching a season best.
“We scored some big goals, starting with Phil to get us going,” Brassard said. “Our transition was really fast in the second. As soon as we play with pace and move our legs, I feel like some teams struggle against us.”
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each finished with two assists. Crosby has registered points in nine of his last 11 home games and has 24 points in his last 18 games. Matt Murray stopped 27 shots for his fourth straight win since returning from a lower-body injury.
Pittsburgh was once last in the Eastern Conference during a run of one win in 10 games. Now, the Penguins have won nine of 13 games in December, including six of seven and 12 of 19 overall.
“I just think coming off the break like the way we did, we played against a team that’s young, enthusiastic and they can skate,” Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought they had more urgency to their game in the first period than we did. We had to get back to playing the game the right way, and I thought our power play was a big difference-maker.”
Dylan Larkin extended his career-long, 12-game point streak with his 16th goal of the season for Detroit. Andreas Athanasiou returned from a two-game absence because of an upper-body injury and scored his 12th of the season. Jimmy Howard made 35 saves for the Red Wings, who have lost three straight and seven of eight games overall.
Athanasiou’s breakaway goal cut the Penguins’ lead to 3-2 at 4:45 of the third period. But Hornqvist restored Pittsburgh’s two-goal lead 1:10 later when he redirected Jack Johnson’s shot from the point past Howard.
Howard said Athanasiou’s goal initially gave Detroit life before Pittsburgh responded.
“It was a great read by him,” Howard said. “He just put the afterburners on and made a great play, but it wasn’t very much later where (Pittsburgh) got it back, so it’s tough.”
Larkin continued his point streak by opening the scoring at 11:49 with a wrist shot over Murray’s shoulder. He has six goals and 15 points in his last 12 games. Larkin’s 12-game point streak is the longest since Henrik Zetterberg’s 17-game run in 2007-08.
“After the first, we let (Pittsburgh) come in,” Larkin said. “We stopped forechecking and we stopped our O-zone grind that was so good in the first period. We needed two points desperately here.”
Pittsburgh jumped ahead in the second period with two goals scored in 74-second span. Kessel tied the game with a power-play goal at 7:12 and Brassard put the Penguins in front.
Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson fell, allowing Kessel to swoop in and slip a backhander between Howard’s pads. Brassard gave Pittsburgh the lead when he redirected a pass from Kessel past Howard.
Kessel scored his second power-play goal with 1:02 to play in the second period. His wrist shot from between the circles beat Howard on the glove side and gave Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead.
“It’s incredible the talent he has,” Brassard said. “Tonight, he came up big for our team.”
NOTES: The Penguins, on Thursday, re-signed 24-year-old F Jake Guentzel to a five-year contract extension worth $30 million. The deal runs through 2023-24 and carries an average annual value of $6 million per season. … Detroit D Niklas Kronwall passed Mattias Ohlund for seventh all-time in games played by a Swedish defenseman in the NHL with 909. . Malkin has points in seven of his last eight against Detroit. … Pittsburgh has won eight of its last 11 home games. . Penguins’ D Jamie Oleksiak skated Thursday morning in a non-contact jersey, but missed his third game with a concussion.
Red Wings: Conclude a three-game road trip Saturday at Dallas.
Penguins: Begin a three-game road trip Saturday at St. Louis.