PITTSBURGH—Patrick Kane darted behind the Pittsburgh Penguins net, seemingly intent on trying to bend a wraparound past Marc-Andre Fleury.Halfway there, the Blackhawks star changed his mind, instead flipping a backhand pass to Artemi Panarin at the left post. Panarin flicked the puck off an unsuspecting Fleury – caught looking the other way – and into the net.Seems nobody can see the Blackhawks coming these days. Not even the defending Stanley Cup champions.Kane’s sleight of hand set the tone for a lopsided 5-1 victory over the short-handed Penguins on Wednesday night. Panarin’s 26th of the season kickstarted a four-goal first period for the Hawks, who moved closer to locking up the Central Division title by winning in regulation in Pittsburgh for the first time in 20 years.Richard Panik, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa also scored during the first as the Blackhawks moved nine points clear of second-place Minnesota with five games left in the regular season. Tanner Nero added a breakaway goal in the third. Kane finished with two assists to move past Sidney Crosby for second in the NHL scoring race.
”I think it’s good to know we can play like that, so let’s keep building,” Kane said. ”Let’s try to get this momentum going into the playoffs where we’re firing on all cylinders.”
It looks like the Hawks might already be there. Corey Crawford stopped 31 shots, albeit against a depleted Pittsburgh lineup missing stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Not that Crawford was complaining.
”Obviously, we scored a bunch of goals, but I thought our game was even better after that,” Crawford said. ”We had some good kills to not give them momentum on their power play. It was a great game, full game for us.”
Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 31 saves but received little help outside of Bryan Rust’s third-period goal. Pittsburgh saw its winless streak reach four games, dimming its chances of catching first-place Washington atop the Metropolitan Division. At this point, securing home ice in the first round might be a challenge.
”We’ve made some mistakes, especially early on in the first period, and in that position it’s a climb,” Crosby said. ”We’ve got to be better. We can look at all the other games, it’s good that we stayed in it, but we’re capable of more.”
Pittsburgh is searching for healthy bodies and momentum with the postseason just two weeks away. Not the Blackhawks, who showcased the speed and creativity that have them looking like the favorite in the wide-open Western Conference and a serious threat to add to the three Cups they’ve captured since 2010.The Penguins started Fleury over Matt Murray, who has struggled recently while Fleury has regained his form since the team opted to hold onto him at the trading deadline. Given a chance to perhaps make serious inroads on Murray’s grasp of the No. 1 spot, Fleury instead spent the first period trying to contend with a seemingly endless series of odd-man rushes that left the Penguins flat-footed and reeling.
”They came out pretty hard,” Fleury said. ”They’re a good team. They have a lot of skill. I wish there could have been more stops to keep us in the game.”
Panik doubled the lead 14:39 into the first when he powered home a shot from the slot past Fleury’s outstretched glove. Kruger’s fourth of the year with 55 seconds left in the first came courtesy of a deft touch pass from Kane. Hossa finished off a 3-on-1 by firing it by Fleury with 16 seconds left, and the Hawks 20 minute clinic was complete.Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan switched up the lines but stuck with Fleury, who settled down, but by then the damage was already done. Sullivan has refused to blame health for his team’s slide even while allowing that players like Malkin and Letang are difficult to replace.
”The league is just going to challenge you through particular points in your schedule, and we’re going through one right now,” he said.
NOTES—The Blackhawks tied a franchise record with its 24th road win of the season. … The Hawks went 0 for 4 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 2. … The Penguins last dropped consecutive games by four goals on Jan. 3 and Jan. 5, 2009. … Pittsburgh’s last four-game winless streak came in Sullivan’s first four games on the job in December, 2015. … Asked if he expects Letang – who has missed 16 games with an injury – to return by the playoffs, Sullivan replied ”yes.”
The Blackhawks have just two home games left. They host Columbus on Friday. The Blue Jackets edged the Hawks 3-2 on Oct. 21.The Hawks host Boston Sunday at 11:35am