Sidney Crosby leads Penguins over the Hurricanes

AP Photo

PITTSBURGH (AP) Matt Murray‘s steadiness in the face of adversity is one of the reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins made the precocious 21-year-old the primary backup goaltender behind Marc-Andre Fleury.

Surrendering two goals to Carolina in the opening five minutes Thursday night, Murray could have panicked. He didn’t. Of course, having Sidney Crosby around helps.

Murray shut the door over the final 55 minutes and Crosby collected a pair of highlight-reel goals as the Penguins pushed their winning streak to four by rallying for a 4-2 victory.

“You give up two goals early in a game like that, a lot of time with young goalies that can rattle him,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “And he has a maturity about him beyond his years. He has a calm demeanor and he doesn’t get rattled.”

Murray finished with 31 saves, including a sliding stop to break up a two-on-none midway through the first period that seemed to give his teammate the boost they needed.

Crosby beat Eddie Lack with a slick backhander in the first to cut the deficit in half and added a redirect from his knees in the second to give the Penguins the lead as Pittsburgh strengthened its grip on seventh in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

“I think the way the team responded, the way Sid responded (helped),” defenseman Ian Cole said. “And kudos to our team being able to grab the second half of that first period and not wait for intermission for coach to come yell at us. We realized it wasn’t the start we wanted and then were able to turn the tide and turn the momentum as quickly as possible.”

Cole finished with two assists. Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist and Nick Bonino picked up his fifth of the year for Pittsburgh. The Penguins improved to 12-3-1 in their last 16 games against Metropolitan Division opponents.

Phillip Di Giuseppe and Riley Nash scored for the Hurricanes. Lack made 44 stops for Carolina, whose postseason hopes took a significant hit after letting an early two-goal lead get away. The Hurricanes are winless in their last three and sit six points behind Detroit in the race for the final wild-card spot.

“We weren’t as competitive in the pace of the game,” Carolina coach Bill Peters said. “It seemed like we struggled with the pace of the game at times.”

With a trip across the state to take on surging Philadelphia awaiting on Saturday, Sullivan opted to rest Fleury and give the start to Murray, who hadn’t played since March 6. The wispy rookie received little help from his teammates in the opening minutes.

Di Giuseppe took advantage of a turnover by Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz to float a shot between Murray’s legs 42 seconds into the game and Nash doubled it less than five minutes later when Jeff Skinner set up behind the net and hit Nash in the slot. Nash’s wrist shot zipped by Murray’s right leg and the Penguins appeared in serious trouble.

Crosby, as he’s done repeatedly since Sullivan took over in mid-December, led the comeback. He pulled Pittsburgh within one 13:43 into the first by forcing a turnover high in the Carolina zone and darting toward the Hurricane net, deking to his backhand to reach the 30-goal plateau for the seventh time in his career.

Kessel tied it just past the game’s midway point by tapping a feed from Carl Hagelin into the wide-open net. Crosby went to his knees to put the Penguins in front, dropping to the ice to turn a cross-ice pass from Ian Cole into a pretty deflection that Lack couldn’t handle.

Bonino, filling in as the center on the second line while Evgeni Malkin deals with an upper-body injury that will have him out until late-April at the earliest, gave the Penguins more than enough cushion at the end of a nifty sequence in the third that saw Hagelin pass it off the end boards behind the Carolina net to Kessel, who slipped it to Bonino at the far post.

“When we get that line going offensively, we’re harder to play against,” Sullivan said. “We can’t rely on the same people to score every night.”

NOTES: Both teams struggled on the power play. The Hurricanes were 0 for 5, the Penguins 0 for 3. … The Penguins wore their third jerseys featuring Pittsburgh gold along with a commemorative patch to honor the city’s bicentennial. Pittsburgh was officially incorporated on March 18, 1816. Former Penguins Ken Schinkel and Duane Rupp joined mayor Bill Peduto for the ceremonial puck drop. … Carolina visits Minnesota on Saturday.