PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan admires his team’s resiliency. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach would just prefer to not have to rely on it so much.
Still, Sullivan can live with the sluggish starts — for now — when it leads to the Penguins playing the kind of hockey they’ll need with greater regularity once mid-April arrives.
Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel beat Chad Johnson in a shootout and Penguins inched closer to a 10th straight playoff berth with a 5-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night.
Ben Lovejoy, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Nick Bonino scored during a furious second period as the Penguins climbed out of an early three-goal deficit and then won it when Kessel’s wrist shot slipped by Johnson’s left pad and into the net.
“I don’t think any of us to a man liked the first period,” Sullivan said. “But the good news is there’s 40 minutes left and we’re a good enough team that if we put our minds to it, we can climb back in it.”
Rookie Matt Murray made 26 saves, including a breakaway stop on Sabres rookie Jake Eichel in overtime, as the Penguins pulled within a point of the New York Rangers for second in the crowded Metropolitan Division.
Crosby assisted on Sheary’s goal to give him an NHL-best 20 points this month. Pittsburgh improved to 11-4 since March 1, several of them games it was forced to scramble after sleepwalking through the opening minutes.
“For some unknown reason it keeps happening,” Kuhnhackl said. “We find ourselves down one or two goals, today three goals down. That can’t happen as we get closer to the playoffs.”
Ryan O’Reilly had a goal and an assist for the Sabres. Zach Bogosian, Matt Moulson, Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe also scored for Buffalo, and Johnson made 42 saves.
“We got some fortunate bounces, but we started with some good jump and a few things went our way,” O’Reilly said. “But you have to bring that consistency all night long and we didn’t.”
The Sabres, well out of the playoff picture but much improved under former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, were no pushover. Sullivan warned his players about looking past certain opponents only to watch Pittsburgh fall into a familiar rut.
Buffalo, playing without injured forward Evander Kane, scored three times in the first 19 minutes. Moulson pounded home a rebound on the power play, O’Reilly followed with his 18th of the season and McCabe took a slick cross-ice feed from O’Reilly and stuffed it by Murray.
Pittsburgh’s rally started with an unlikely spark, with Lovejoy finishing off a 3-on-2 by slamming the puck off Johnson’s pads for the defenceman’s fourth goal of the season and his second since Nov. 25. Sheary pounced on a Sabres turnover and beat Johnson 5:55 into the second before the Penguins’ penalty killers gave them the lead late in the period.
Kuhnhackl finished off a textbook 2-on-1 breakaway with Matt Cullen to tie it at 18:47. The buzz from the 416th consecutive sellout at Consol Energy Center hadn’t even waned when Carl Hagelin stole the puck behind the net from Johnson and fed it to Bonino in front put Pittsburgh ahead.
It marked the first time the Penguins have scored on the same penalty kill since Craig Adams and Matt Cooke did it against Tampa Bay on Oct. 27, 2010. The Penguins have outscored opponents 96-59 in the second period this season.
“What I like about our group is we’ve been able to find different ways to win,” Sullivan said.
Bogosian tied it 2:13 into the third and Buffalo controlled most of the play during the final period and extra session but Pittsburgh hung in behind Murray. The 21-year-old was brilliant late, including a deft pad save on Eichel with about 30 seconds left that sent it to the shootout and allowed the Penguins a chance at the valuable extra point.
“It was tough giving up that goal early in the third but we shut it down pretty good after that. We got the two points so that’s what matters,” Murray said.
NOTES: Pittsburgh improved to 9-8 in overtime, including 3-3 in shootouts. … The Sabres fell to 5-11 in OT and 2-7 in shootouts. … Buffalo went 2 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 3 with the man advantage. … In addition to Kane, the Sabres scratched defencemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Cody Franson and goaltenders Jason Kosdorf and Robin Lehner. … Pittsburgh scratched injured defencemen Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin as well as goaltender Jeff Zatkoff.