Penguins avoid Niemi’s revenge for win

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Nights like these remind you why the Pittsburgh Penguins often pay a big price to add depth. Nights like these also help explain why the Penguins decided that they had to hand Patric Hornqvist a contract extension.

Despite closing out a back-to-back set after allowing the Rangers to rally in OT last night, the Penguins played like the fresher team against the Montreal Canadiens, generating a 39-20 shots on goal advantage. Antti Niemi almost made the difference to get revenge against a team that discarded him as a backup earlier this season, but Hornqvist and the Penguins gutted out a 5-3 win tonight.

Niemi’s showcase was in the second period. Pittsburgh really flexed its muscles then, firing 18 shots on Niemi to only four for Montreal. Despite that disparity, each side scored one goal, and the two teams entered the final frame tied 3-3.

Hornqvist finally attempted a shot that even Niemi couldn’t stop, collecting the game-winner and also the 400th point of his career.

That was his second goal of the night, and Hornqvist also collected an assist, so he’s actually at 401. Not bad for a guy who was once “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final pick (230th overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft.

(There’s some sweet symmetry that Hornqvist, the final pick of that draft, has celebrated some fantastic victories with Sidney Crosby, who went first in 2005.)

Again, this was a game in which the Penguins’ depth allowed them to dominate a hungry (if reeling) opponent. Derick Brassard helped the Penguins begin a rally from down 2-0 by creating a turnover, then sending the puck to Bryan Rust, who found Phil Kessel for Pittsburgh’s first goal. If they can stay healthy, the Penguins’ playoff opponents will have to deal with the notion that, on any given night, Brassard can pick up the scoring burden if a team is slowing down Evgeni Malkin and/or Sidney Crosby.

You know, not that anyone has really been slowing down Malkin lately.

The Washington Capitals pasted the New York Islanders 7-3 tonight, so the Penguins weren’t able to make up ground in the battle to win the Metropolitan Division crown. (Both teams are at 87 standings points, but Washington holds two games in hand.)

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Pittsburgh seems increasingly likely to grab at least a round of home-ice advantage, though, as the Flyers seem like they might slip into a bubble battle with Columbus and New Jersey rather than posing a real threat as the second seed. Actually, with six straight wins, the Blue Jackets might be the greatest threat … but wins like these really give the Penguins some meaningful breathing room.

[The East playoff bubble intrigue increased on Thursday night.]

The Penguins probably grimaced at coughing up a lead against the Rangers last night, but by pushing through for a win in this one, they left a back-to-back set with three of four points. Maybe it’s not always pretty, but this veteran group is used to “finding ways to win,” as they proved once more on Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.