PITTSBURGH (AP) — Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was impressed by Kris Letang in his return after recovering from a stroke 10 weeks ago.
Jussi Jokinen scored in regulation and then got the game-winner in the shootout, lifting Pittsburgh to a 4-3 victory over the playoff-bound Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night.
James Neal scored two power-play goals in regulation — his 25th and 26th of the season — for Pittsburgh, which got the 26-year-old Letang back for the first time since January.
“He’s been out a long time and he looked pretty darn good out there defending against some good players,” Bylsma said. “He made a difference.”
Tomas Jurco, Jakub Kindl and Riley Sheahan scored for the Red Wings, who are headed to the postseason for an NHL-leading 23rd straight time.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had 34 saves through overtime and stopped all three attempts in the shootout, including a spinning acrobatic glove save on Daniel Alfredsson to preserve the win.
“Players on the bench called it a (Dominik) Hasek-type save the way he put his glove out,” Bylsma said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a more acrobatic save from (Fleury).”
On the winning goal, Jonas Gustavsson poked the puck off Jokinen’s stick but it caromed high over the Detroit goalie and into the net.
“He lost the puck and it started rolling so I was going to touch it,” Gustavsson said. “It took a funny bounce and lobbed over me. I guess it was a lucky break for them.”
With the scored tied 2-2, Letang — who missed 26 games — set up the go-ahead goal with 10:43 remaining in the third, his shot squeezing through Gustavsson before Jokinen found the loose puck to put Pittsburgh in front. It was Jokinen’s 19th goal of the season.
“I had a lot of fun,” Letang said. “It wasn’t perfect for me, but I was just happy to be on the ice. Obviously it’s something I missed a lot.”
Sheahan forced overtime and put the Red Wings in the playoffs when he scored his seventh of the year with 1:15 left in regulation.
“It was a pretty good feeling to get that point and give us a chance in the playoffs,” Sheahan said.
Detroit, like Pittsburgh, has endured injuries throughout the season, as the Red Wings are still without captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is recovering from back surgery. Top-pairing defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (finger), Daniel Cleary (knee) and Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder) also remain out.
“Everyone gets injuries,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “You just can’t get injuries to too many of the wrong people. The rest of these guys have stepped up.”
Zetterberg, who could begin skating next week, likely won’t be ready for the first game of the postseason, though he could return at some point during the first round.
That first-round matchup could come against the Penguins, a potential meeting that would pair the teams together for the third time since 2008, the first of back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup finals for both clubs.
Pittsburgh, locked into the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed, welcomed several stars back to the lineup, including captain Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik, and Olli Maatta, who all missed Sunday’s shootout win at Colorado.
The most significant return came on the blue line.
Letang hadn’t played since Jan. 27, two days before suffering a frightening stroke that threatened his 2013 season. Doctors have not pinpointed the cause of the stroke, but tests revealed a small hole in his heart, which hasn’t been repaired and may have played a factor. Letang has been taken off blood-thinner medication, but his condition will be monitored.
Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero and Letang said they are confident the 2013 Norris Trophy finalist is not putting himself at greater risk by playing.
Letang, welcomed back to the lineup with a loud ovation from the sellout crowd, was cleared by doctors several weeks ago and convinced Shero he was OK during a series of conversations while traveling with the team on a road trip last week.
He looked well on his way back to form Wednesday.
“There are some things I felt good about, some things I have to get my timing back,” Letang said. “Hockey is about timing and, I don’t know, maybe it’s going to take a week, maybe it’s going to take two weeks.”
NOTES: The Penguins are 49-18-2 in 69 games played the past two seasons with Letang in the lineup and 33-8-1 when he records a point. … Pittsburgh recorded its 100th regular-season win at home, its 51st win equaling the second-highest total in team history. … The crowd was encouraged to sing along to the National Anthem in support of stabbing victims at nearby Franklin Regional High School.
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