WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — A moment of reconciliation more than 15 years in the making allowed the Pittsburgh Penguins to pay tribute to an important part of their past.
Then Sidney Crosby and the precocious kids who play alongside him provided a thrilling reminder of just how good the defending Stanley Cup champions have it in the present. And most likely the future.
The captain poured in a natural hat trick during a 10:45 span between the second and third periods — all three assists coming from linemates Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel — as the Penguins pulled away for a 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers on Sunday.
The Penguins aired a video in the first period to salute Florida star Jaromir Jagr on the day he became the fourth player in NHL history to skate in 1,700 games. Jagr even received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd, a rarity in a place where he spent the first 806 games of his career while helping the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 as a free-wheeling, fabulously mulleted 20-something who remains the second-leading scorer in franchise history behind mentor Mario Lemieux.
At least for now. Crosby inched closer after his 10th career hat trick gave him 1,018 points in his career. He almost certainly won’t pass Jagr’s 1,079 with the Penguins until next season, though it’s hardly something Crosby is keeping tabs on. Keeping the Metropolitan Division lead within arm’s reach is more than enough for now, particularly with Evgeni Malkin out while dealing with an upper-body injury.
Malkin missed his second straight game on Sunday. The Penguins haven’t missed a beat thanks in part to the game’s best player. Crosby has poured in five goals during Malkin’s absence to move into the NHL lead with 40. His 80 points are tied with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for tops in the league.
“He knows he’s got a little more weight on his shoulders and he takes care of that,” Sheary said of Crosby.
Patric Hornqvist added his 18th for Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 21 shots for his 44th career shutout as the Penguins inched closer to an 11th straight playoff berth and is one point behind division co-leaders Columbus and Washington with three weeks to go in the regular season.
“We know the situation we’re in,” Crosby said. “We know there’s a few teams fighting for that No. 1 spot. We’ll see what happens but I think we’re trying to give ourselves a chance down the stretch with the situation we’re in.”
Jagr joined Gordie Howe, Mark Messier and Ron Francis as the only players in NHL history to play in 1,700 games, but the Panthers saw their fading playoff hopes take another hit. James Reimer finished with 24 saves but received little help from those in front of him. Needing a spark to salvage his team’s dwindling prospects of making the playoffs, Jagr instead had to settle for a long overdue token of appreciation from a fan base that’s taken great pride in lustily booing him ever since he forced a trade to Washington in July 2001.
“It was pretty nice, but I would’ve rather won the hockey game,” Jagr said. “That’s the only thing I was concentrating on.”
It never materialized as Pittsburgh held the Panthers to 11 shots below their season average then let Crosby, the 24-year-old Sheary and the 22-year-old Guentzel do the rest.
The line contributed three goals — two by Crosby, one by Guentzel — in 6-4 victory over New Jersey on Friday. They kept at it against the Panthers, though the two-time MVP doesn’t get credit for the most inventive goal of the day. That came in the first period when Phil Kessel found himself behind the Florida net and flipped a pass in the air over the net to the front of the crease that Hornqvist knocked out of the air and by Reimer like something out of batting practice.
Fleury kept the lead intact long enough for Crosby to take over. His first came on a wrist shot from the left circle 14:15 into the second. His second came less than two minutes later when he pirouetted in traffic and flipped a backhander past Reimer. When the Panthers left Crosby alone just outside the crease five minutes into the third, he fired it by Reimer to send a torrent of hats onto the ice.
NOTES: This is the second time in Crosby’s career he’s reached 40 goals. He posted a career-high 51 in 2009-10. … Linesman David Briesbois left in the first period after getting accidentally run over by Hornqvist after dropping a face off but returned. … Both teams went 0 for 4 on the power play.
Panthers: host Carolina Tuesday.
Penguins: Visit Buffalo on Tuesday.
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