PITTSBURGH (AP) – Phil Kessel scored twice and the surging Pittsburgh Penguins moved within striking distance of a 10th straight playoff berth with a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bonino also scored for Pittsburgh, which improved to 10-1 in its last 11 games. The Penguins will clinch a spot in the postseason if Detroit loses in regulation on Friday against Minnesota. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 shots to reach the 35-win plateau for the seventh time in his career.
James Neal and Ryan Johansen each had a goal and an assist for the Predators, who failed for a third straight game to wrap up a playoff bid. Pekka Rinne stopped 25 shots before sitting out the third period in favor of backup Carter Hutton.
The Penguins improved to an NHL-best 12-4 this month. Their sprint through March is all the more impressive considering their sometimes lifeless starts. They fell behind Buffalo by three goals in the opening period on Tuesday before roaring back for a 5-4 shootout victory thanks in large part to a career-high 35:14 from Kris Letang, who finished off the rally with the deciding shootout goal.
Given an opportunity to pull closer to a postseason spot that looked perilous at best after scuffling through the first three months of the season, Pittsburgh jumped in front quickly. Kessel converted a pretty cross-ice feed from Justin Schultz into an open net just 3:06 into the game.
Johansen tied it with a minute to go in the first after slamming a Neal pass from behind the net by Fleury.
Kessel got the lead back for the Penguins with a sizzling wrist shot from the right circle that whizzed by Rinne’s right arm and into the top corner 2:29 into the second. Letang, whom Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan called “one of the most elite defensemen in this league” following his tireless play against the Sabres, ended the Penguins’ 3-for-29 power play slump by calling for the stick at the point and drilling one past Rinne just past the game’s midway point.
Neal made it a one-goal game at the 14:24 mark of the second when he pounded sent a shot from the slot past Fleury, his former teammate.
The Penguins, however, just kept coming. Hornqvist parked himself in front of Rinne and stood there unfettered before deflecting home a slap shot by Trevor Daley to make it 4-2 late in the second.
Rinne stayed on the bench in the third period and the Penguins improved to 36-0 when leading after two by relying on Fleury and a steady forecheck that stopped the Predators from generating any sustained momentum.
NOTES: Kessel has 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in his last 22 games. … Penguins center Sidney Crosby had one assist to give him 599 in his career. … Pittsburgh went 2 for 4 on the power play. The Predators were 0 for 4 with the man advantage. … Nashville scratched defensemen Anthony Bitetto and Ryan Ellis and forwards Eric Nystrom, Colin Wilson and Gabriel Bourque. … Pittsburgh scratched injured defensemen Olli Maatta and Brian Dumolin as well as forward Bryan Rust, who is day to day with a lower body problem. … The Penguins play at the Islanders on Saturday. … Nashville hosts San Jose on Saturday.