Sidney Crosby raised his world-class game in Evgeni Malkin’s absence and the Pittsburgh Penguins held off a furious Lightning comeback bid Sunday night en route to a 5-3 victory at sold-out CONSUL Energy Center.
The loss dropped Tampa Bay (9-8-1) back into a tie with victorious Carolina atop the Southeast Division with 30 games remaining.
In dropping their fifth consecutive regular-season matchup at Pittsburgh, the Lightning spotted the Penguins a 3-0 advantage after the first period as goaltender Anders Lindback appeared tentative.
Goals by Eric Brewer, Steven Stamkos and rookie Cory Conacher fueled Tampa Bay’s comeback attempt, but Pittsburgh added a late empty-net goal to improve to 13-6.
Crosby scored twice, added an assist and fired five of Pittsburgh’s 22 shots while Malkin didn’t dress because of a head injury suffered Friday night against Montreal.
“I coached Crosby two years in junior and I’ve seen it all with Sidney,’’ said Lightning coach Guy Boucher. “I was hoping not to see it tonight.’’
Conacher’s seventh goal pulled Tampa Bay within 4-3 early in the third period on a delayed penalty call as Stamkos posted his second assist of the night, but Matt Cooke scored into an empty net with 52 seconds remaining for the final margin.
With Mathieu Garon replacing Lindback in goal at the start of the second period, Tampa Bay quickly sliced its deficit to 3-2 with a pair of quick scores.
After Brewer scored his fourth goal of the season, the Lightning capitalized on a 5-on-3 power play as Stamkos registered his 13th goal with a one-timer from the left faceoff circle.
Pittsburgh returned to its aggressive forecheck and the Penguins opened a 4-2 advantage by scoring on the power play for the 11th consecutive game.
With Tampa Bay skating two men short, Beau Bennett scored his first NHL goal, beating Garon from the left faceoff circle off Crosby’s deft feed.
“We outshot them, we hung in there and we didn’t panic,’’ said Lightning winger Martin St. Louis. “We fought back, but it was a tough position to put ourselves in. Crosby is definitely a dangerous player and he shows up every game.’’
The Penguins, now 9-0 when leading after two periods, have averaged six goals per game in their last five home matchups against the Lightning.
Crosby needed only 76 seconds to open the scoring as he skated through the left circle and beat Lindback high to the short side on Pittsburgh’s first shot of the game.
Lindback’s frustrating and abbreviated evening continued six minutes later when he failed to control a soft shot from the point. The puck ended up behind him and Lindback accidentally kicked it in with his right skate.
Crosby, lurking near the net, was credited with the goal for a 2-0 advantage.
Defenseman Paul Martin scored with only 34 seconds remaining in the opening period, and this time, Stamkos was the chief culprit.
A Stamkos turnover led to an odd-man rush for Pittsburgh and Lindback made a good save against Cooke before Martin pounced on the rebound from the slot.
“We were in a back-to-back and they were waiting for us with all the energy in the world,’’ Boucher said. “We know we can come back from three goals down. We’ve done it before. Our guys battled with everything they had, but on the road, you need to have a solid first period.’’