John Tavares broke a tie with his 37th goal of the season early in the third period and the New York Islanders pulled away to beat the reeling Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 on Friday night.
Tavares beat Marc-Andre Fleury on a rebound 2:46 into the third and Michael Grabner added his eight of the season with less than 4 minutes remaining to help the Islanders bolster their playoff position. New York can finish no worse than third in the Metropolitan Division. Jaroslav Halak made 37 saves for the Islanders.
Rob Scuderi scored his first goal in more than two years for Pittsburgh, but the Penguins failed to lock down a ninth straight postseason berth. Pittsburgh still has several ways it can make the playoffs, the only certain way coming with a victory in Buffalo on Saturday.
The Islanders can move into second place and earn home ice in the opening round of the postseason with a win Saturday against Columbus combined with a Washington loss to the New York Rangers.
Either way, the Islanders are moving on. That's hardly a guarantee in Pittsburgh.
It's a scenario that seemed far-fetched a month ago, but the Penguins are 3-9-2 in their last 14 games. Fleury, voted Pittsburgh's MVP by his teammates earlier in the day, made 23 stops but the Penguins continued to struggle to score. Pittsburgh has 11 goals in its last seven home games.
The Penguins blew an early three-goal lead in an overtime loss to Ottawa on Tuesday night, but responded with perhaps their best stretch of play in a long time early against the Islanders.
Patric Hornqvist nearly put the Penguins up 7:52 into the game when he tried to jam the puck by Halak. The goalie snatched the puck with his glove, which just happened to be behind the goal line when play was stopped.
It was ruled no goal on the ice and upheld on review. The 375th consecutive sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center hadn't finished voicing its displeasure when Casey Cizikas found himself racing the other way and firing a wrist shot by Fleury for New York's 10th short-handed goal of the season, tied with Winnipeg for the NHL lead.
Pittsburgh kept pressing and Halak kept responding. He made a series of point-blank stops, including one on Chris Kunitz at the end of the first that seemed to sum up the Penguins' baffling season. David Perron slid a perfect cross-ice pass to Kunitz in the right slot. The veteran had all the time he needed to load and fire only to send it directly into Halak's pads.
Halak's brilliance continued into the second. He stuck his left toe in front of Sidney Crosby's backhander to keep the Penguins off the board and Pittsburgh appeared headed for the third period down a goal, not the best position for a team that hasn't won a game when trailing after two periods all season.
The equalizer came from an unlikely source, though Scuderi's first goal in more than two years resulted from a peerless shift by Crosby. The two-time MVP spent the final shift of the second period working relentless in the New York zone, darting behind the net looking for room. He fed a pass to Paul Martin at the point. Martin's shot went over the net and Crosby's rebound slid across the ice to Scuderi in the left circle. The 36-year-old's 100th career point smacked off Halak's right hand and into the net with just 5.7 seconds left in the period.
NOTES: Tavares and Crosby both have 84 points, tied for the NHL lead. ... The Penguins dressed five defenseman and 13 forwards, though forward Craig Adams played only on the penalty kill. ... Islanders D Travis Hominic left after the first period with an undisclosed injury and did not return. ... New York improved to 21-6-2 against the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins are 9-17-4 against divisional opponents.