PITTSBURGH (AP) — Phil Kessel wasn’t even aware he was playing in the 800th game of his career until the Pittsburgh Penguins forward glanced up at the scoreboard at some point on Friday night against Columbus.
“I guess it’s a lot of games,” Kessel said. “Hopefully I can get a bunch more.”
If he can keep pouring goals in as he did in a taut 4-3 overtime victory, why not? Kessel slammed home a loose puck in front of the Columbus next 3:15 into overtime for his 17th of the season and second of the night as the Penguins pulled within two points of the second-place Blue Jackets in the taut Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh squandered a two-goal third-period lead, but improved to an NHL-best 22-3-2 at home when Kessel turned the only power play of the game into the 626th point of his 11-year career. Following a slow start to the season, Kessel has 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in his last 27 games.
“He can really shoot the puck and when he gets in those scoring areas he’s dangerous,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He doesn’t need too many opportunities.”
Nick Bonino added his eighth for Pittsburgh and Patric Hornqvist scored his fifth goal in his last five games for the Penguins. Matt Murray stopped 28 shots as Pittsburgh remained unbeaten (20-0-0) when leading after two periods this season.
The Blue Jackets didn’t make keeping that perfect mark intact easy. Alex Wennberg scored 29 seconds into the third and Cam Atkinson powered in his 25th of the season to force overtime, fitting for the NHL’s two highest-scoring teams.
Atkinson, however, went to the box for trying to hook Sidney Crosby as the Pittsburgh captain popped loose for a breakaway. Sergei Bobrovsky turned Crosby’s shot aside, but was well out of position as Kessel ended three-plus periods of hockey that would have felt right at home in early May as it did in early February.
“I think we knew we were right there the whole game,” Columbus forward Boone Jenner said. “They had a two-goal lead for most of that second and to get that back, and they potted one right after. It’s just a good character battle.”
Brandon Dubinsky also scored for the Blue Jackets. Sergei Bobrovsky finished with 29 saves for Columbus, which has cooled since going unbeaten (14-0-0) in December. The Blue Jackets are just 7-7-1 since Jan. 1.
The Blue Jackets’ perfect run through December included a 7-1 blowout over the defending Stanley Cup champions on Dec. 22, an exclamation point on a month of excellence that established Columbus as a legitimate threat in the NHL’s toughest division.
The Penguins too have scuffled of late while Washington sprinted past both of them to the top of the Metropolitan. Sullivan has preached that it’s time for his team to play with a postseason mentality.
The process started with a businesslike 4-2 win over Nashville on Tuesday and continued three days later behind Murray, who made his eighth straight start while becoming the team’s No. 1 goaltender while veteran Marc-Andre Fleury sits. Murray was spectacular at times, including a beautiful stop on a two-on-none against Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad in the second period.
“Of course we didn’t like how we played against them last time,” Murray said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing against. Two points is always huge.”
And given the tightness in the Metropolitan Division – where the top four teams are separated by all of nine points – salvaging at least one on a night when it never led might pay off for the Blue Jackets too. Pittsburgh visits Columbus again on Feb. 17.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted, but I think we got back to playing the way we need to in order to get some wins,” Dubinsky said. “I think, for the most part, if we play like that, we’re going to get the full result.”