Penguins learning to be ‘comfortable’ in close games as playoffs approach

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Penguins know the freewheeling portion of the regular season – or what passes for it these days – is gone.

If Pittsburgh wants to reach the postseason for a 10th straight year by surviving a chaotic Eastern Conference playoff race, the Penguins understand they’re going to have to play the kind of disciplined hockey they’ve occasionally abandoned.

Three-plus periods against the New York Islanders provided a timely refresher.

Kris Letang scored the only goal of the shootout with a pretty backhand past rookie goalie Jean-Francois Berube as Pittsburgh slipped past New York 2-1 to strengthen its hold on the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Toward the end of the year, it’s going to be games like that, one-goal games,” Letang said. “You have to be comfortable in those.”

The Penguins certainly looked at ease. Pittsburgh controlled play for long stretches and didn’t get rattled after New York’s Kyle Okposo tied it with 5:45 remaining.

The Penguins dominated overtime and Marc-Andre Fleury turned aside Frans Nielsen, Okposo and John Tavares as the Penguins earned a little payback a week removed from a 2-1 loss in Brooklyn.

“Even though we let in a score at the end, we didn’t panic or do anything stupid,” said Fleury, who finished with 25 saves. “We just played good at the end of the third, a great overtime.”

Chris Kunitz scored his 14th goal of the season in the 800th game of his career while Sidney Crosby picked up the secondary assist to extend his points streak to nine games. The Penguins have won three straight and 7 of 10.

Berube made 33 stops in his third NHL start, including several in the extra period after Okposo’s score in the third sent the game to overtime. The Islanders failed to pick up the additional point when they couldn’t solve Fleury in the shootout.

“It would’ve been nice to get two, obviously,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “It’s a pretty obvious thing, but you get them the best way you can this year. You try to gather them and I think we battled hard, certainly. It’s not easy battling back in this building against a really good team.”

The Islanders came in riding a 7-2-1 surge, including a raucous three-goal third-period rally on Monday night against Florida that has provided them with a little wiggle room above the frantic fray below as the Penguins, Flyers and Red Wings vie for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.

The Penguins will have to make the push for a playoff spot without center Evgeni Malkin, out 6 to 8 weeks with an upper-body injury. His teammates put together an inspired performance in their first game without him on Sunday, a 5-3 triumph over the Rangers that provided a boost in the middle of a nine-game run against Metropolitan Division opponents.

Pittsburgh wasn’t quite as dynamic two days later on home ice thanks in part to the steady play by Berube, who hardly looked like a guy intimidated by being thrust into a playoff-type atmosphere. The Penguins spent the majority of the game in New York’s end. During one sequence in the second period, the Penguins played keep-away in the Islanders’ zone for more than 90 seconds.

Berube’s ability to see the puck through traffic kept Pittsburgh at bay, though he could do nothing to stop Kunitz from getting the type of goal emblematic of his 12-year career. The game was scoreless in the middle of the first when Crosby slipped a pass to Brian Dumoulin at the point.

The defenseman wristed a floater toward the goal and Kunitz – who has spent more than a decade planted in front of the net – reached out and deflected the puck by Berube for his 238th NHL goal, many of them from within a stride or two of the blue paint.

“It’s nice when the (defense) throws pucks there that are tipable,” Kunitz said. “It wasn’t going on net but at least you have a chance to put it on net and it just worked out in our favor.”

Pittsburgh’s defense and another typically solid effort on home ice by Fleury made it stand until late in the third period when Okposo tied it at the end of a scramble in front of the Pittsburgh goaltender.

NOTES: The Islanders went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 3 with the man advantage. … Playing for the second time in as many nights, New York coach Jack Capuano decided to sit centers Brock Nelson and Shane Prince in favor of fresher legs in Steve Bernier and Mikhail Grabovski, out since Feb. 19 with an upper-body injury. … The Penguins scratched center Scott Wilson and defenseman Derrick Pouliot. … Pittsburgh hosts Carolina on Thursday. … New York travels to Nashville on Thursday.