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Maatta & Kunitz fuel Penguins to victory over Wild

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On Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins welcomed ex-Penguins Matt Cooke, Mike Yeo, and Chuck Fletcher back to the city by defeating their Minnesota Wild hockey club, 5-2. The victory is the sixth in a row for the Penguins, and increased their Metropolitan Division lead over the Washington Capitals to fourteen points.

Like they did on Monday night in their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins jumped out to an early lead within the first minute of the opening period. Forty-nine seconds into the period, Chris Kunitz found the loose puck sitting around Niklas Backstrom and stuffed it home to give the Penguins the early 1-0 lead. After the Kunitz goal, things got a bit chippy. First, Craig Adams fought Zenon Konopka for some reason at 2:19. Then, exactly two minutes after the Adams/Konopka fight, Keith Ballard went low on Chuck Kobasew, flipping him head over heels in the process. Kobasew took exception to this and the two dropped the gloves as well. Anyway, the period came to a close with the Penguins ahead on the scoreboard, 1-0, and in shots, 13-9.

The Penguins picked up the scoring in the second period starting about two minutes into the period. Brandon Sutter continued his goal-scoring streak when he pounced on an Olli Maatta blocked shot and wristed the puck past Backstrom to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead. This is the third game in a row where Sutter has scored a goal. About thirty seconds after Sutter’s goal, the Penguins went on the power play after Nino Niederreiter was whistled for interfering with Penguins goaltender, Jeff Zatkoff. The Penguins sent their top-ranked power play unit to work, and they didn’t disappoint. After his initial shot was blocked, James Neal sent the puck back to Jussi Jokinen. Jokinen then slid the puck to Matt Niskanen who fired the puck past Backstrom to put Pittsburgh ahead, 3-0. Around the midpoint of the period, and after a disagreement between James Neal and Keith Ballard, the Penguins made one of the best plays of the season when Sidney Crosby connected with a ridiculous behind-the-back pass to Chris Kunitz who flipped the puck behind the Minnesota goaltender to increase the Pittsburgh lead to four goals. Before the period came to a close, the Wild put something in the goal column when Jason Pominville re-took the team lead in goals from Zach Parise by deflecting a Niederreiter shot past Zatkoff to make the score 4-1 in favor of Pittsburgh. The two teams went into the intermission with the Penguins ahead by that same 4-1 score.

The Penguins entered the third period looking to put away the Wild, while Minnesota was in search of a way to get back into the contest. The Wild made the first move to start their comeback when Dany Heatley shoveled the puck behind Jeff Zatkoff off a wrist shot by Charlie Coyle that hit the goal post to bring the Wild within two of the Penguins. However, the Penguins would not let Minnesota get any closer as Olli Maatta put the game away. After killing off a 5-on-3 situation, Maatta got a breakaway chance after being sprung from the penalty box. On that breakaway, Maatta was hooked by Jonas Brodin and awarded a penalty shot. The nineteen-year old defenseman took advantage of his opportunity by sneaking the puck past the Wild netminder to put the Penguins ahead, 5-2, which is how the game ended.

The Penguins get Friday night off after playing the last two nights before welcoming the Calgary Flames to Pittsburgh for a Saturday afternoon matinee (1 pm/et; Root Sports, SNET-W).

Notes:

-Olli Maatta’s goal in the third period was the first penalty shot goal by a Pittsburgh defenseman since 1968 (George Konik), and only the second by a d-man in franchise history.

-Jeff Zatkoff just keeps improving with every game he plays.

-This defense core is not just a patch job; they are starting to look like they actually know what they are doing out there.

-Quite a few fights for two teams that never see each other for some reason.

-The Penguins’ first goal was first credited to Pascal Dupuis, but was changed to Chris Kunitz’s goal after the game.

Three stars:

1. PIT D Olli Maatta (1G, 1A)

2. PIT D Matt Niskanen (1G, 1A)

3. PIT RW Pascal Dupuis (1A)

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