PITTSBURGH (AP) — The pregame hype video that plays inside PPG Paints Arena before every Pittsburgh Penguins home game starts with the lyrics: “Nobody said it would be easy.”
A prophetic choice for a team for which things used to come so easily. Dazzling goals. Victories. Playoff berths. Stanley Cups.
Not anymore. Not for this team. Not during this trying season, anyway. Yet with their postseason hopes flickering, the Penguins responded with the kind of responsible, selfless borderline boring hockey they’ll need to rely on if they want to reach the playoffs for a 17th straight year.
Tristan Jarry stopped 27 shots, Kris Letang scored at the expense of good friend Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins kept pace in the chase for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots with a 4-1 win over Minnesota on Thursday night.
The Penguins bounced back from a miserable performance in a loss to New Jersey on Tuesday by putting together three complete periods, a rarity for most of the last three months.
“If you look at the last game, we didn’t have a start at all,” Letang said. “We never really gave ourselves a chance in Jersey and tonight we started really well. It sets (us) up for success.”
Pittsburgh’s second victory in three games kept it one point behind the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders, who both won easily Thursday. All three teams have three contests remaining.
If Pittsburgh wants to extend the longest active playoff streak in major North American sports, it will need to find a way to replicate what it did against the Wild. Jarry was solid. The special teams were, too. And the bad habits that have crept into the Penguins’ play far too often over the last three months largely vanished.
“I thought we played a really good game,” Jarry said. “We knew what was on the line and we have to keep it going.”
Two nights after getting drilled in New Jersey, Pittsburgh took it to Minnesota early and never really let up.
Letang finished off an excellent first period with a wrist shot over Fleury’s glove that gave the Penguins a lead they never threatened to give up.
Still, five-plus years after Fleury left in the Vegas expansion draft, shooting against a longtime teammate who won three Cups in Pittsburgh is still sort of strange to his former teammates.
“It’s getting a little bit more natural to shoot on him now, but still kind of weird,” Letang said. “Yeah. Just weird.”
Fleury is already assured of a 17th consecutive trip to the postseason — a record for goaltenders — after the Wild wrapped up a spot earlier this week. While his return to a city where he’s still beloved isn’t the same emotional reunion it was five years ago, the fans — some of whom came wearing his familiar No. 29 Penguins jersey — did chant his name in the final seconds.
“It’s always a special place to come play,” Fleury said. “I wish I would’ve done better, put on a better show, keep it closer, give a chance to our team to stay in a bit more. As a team, maybe it wasn’t our best, but it is what it is.”
Minnesota’s bid to chase down first-place Colorado in the Central Division took a hit when the Wild struggled to generate much traffic in front of Jarry until they fell too far behind. Fleury stopped 27 shots while falling to 4-4 all-time against the team for which he played from 2003-17.
Marcus Johansson scored on the two-man advantage midway through the third period to spoil Jarry’s bid for a shutout, but couldn’t stop Minnesota from losing in regulation for just the third time in its last 24 games.
“I thought it was a much more calculated game and that’s the game we have to emulate night in and night out,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said.
NOTES: Minnesota’s Joel Eriksson Ek left in the second period after getting hit in the left leg by a Letang slap shot. Oskar Sundqvsit also left with a lower-body injury. … Pittsburgh D Jan Rutta skated 16:31 in his return from a 10-game absence.
Wild: Host St. Louis on Saturday.
Penguins: Visit Detroit on Saturday. The Red Wings blew out Pittsburgh 7-4 last week.