PITTSBURGH — The night began with a tribute to Matt Cullen’s longevity. It ended with another sparkling play that highlighted Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Jake Guentzel’s increasingly bright future.
Guentzel collected a long flip pass from Sidney Crosby and held off Florida Panthers defenceman Mike Matheson before beating Roberto Luongo with a backhand 2:44 into overtime to give the Penguins a 3-2 victory Tuesday night.
Pittsburgh has struggled when pushed beyond regulation this season — the Penguins entered with a 5-9 record in overtime and shootouts — but Guentzel provided his club with a much-needed two points with his second goal of the night and 33rd of the season.
"I’ve always believed Jake has that I-T," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "That’s part of the reason he has such chemistry with Sid because he has that ‘it’ factor."
It was on full display on the 24-year-old’s winner.
"I tried to put the puck in there and hoped he’d skate into it," said Crosby, who finished with a goal and two assists to become the 48th player in NHL history with 1,200 career points. "He did a great job of holding off the guy and giving a great move to finish the play."
Matt Murray made 32 saves for the Penguins while Cullen played 12:36 in his 1,500th career game as the Penguins remained in the top wild-card spot in a crammed Eastern Conference.
Henrik Borgstrom and Vincent Trocheck scored for the Panthers but Florida dropped its fifth straight — four of them in overtime — when Guentzel broke in alone on Luongo, who made 34 stops but bit on Guentzel’s deke. He reached back in vain with his glove as Guentzel slipped the puck into the net.
"It’s disappointing, obviously," Borgstrom said. "When you try your best — and they’ve been so close, too. It’s been tough and disappointing."
The 42-year-old Cullen — affectionately known as "Dad" on the club he helped win consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 — joined some elite company more than a full generation after his NHL debut, becoming the second American-born player and 20th overall to reach the 1,500-game plateau. His teammates honoured him by wearing black jerseys with his familiar No. 7 in warmups, and Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all helped present Cullen with a handful of gifts, including a silver stick and a Penguins-themed ATV.
A short video tribute ended by thanking Cullen for the memories while urging him to help create more. Fitting. The Penguins are in need of a memorable stretch to assure themselves of a 13th straight post-season berth. Hardly a given for a talented if erratic club that’s spent the last five months mixing bursts of vintage play with long stretches of mediocrity.
Facing a team whose playoff prospects are eroding by the day, it was more of the same.
Florida needed just 1:45 to take the lead when Borgstrom’s shot from the left circle was redirected into the net by Pittsburgh defenceman Erik Gudbranson. The Penguins pressed to tie it thanks in part to some spirited play by Kessel, who is riding a goalless streak that dates back to Jan. 30. Luongo fended off two quality chances from Kessel in the first period but Pittsburgh pulled even 16 seconds into the second when Mike Matheson’s turnover ended up on Crosby’s stick in the Florida zone.
Crosby tried to get the puck to Jared McCann, but it was poke-checked away. No matter. Guentzel jumped on the loose puck and beat Luongo from the slot. Crosby’s 55th assist of the season pushed his career point total to 1,200, joining team owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux as the only Penguins to reach the milestone with the club.
Crosby needed less than 10 minutes to pick up career point No. 1,201. With the Penguins on the power play, he threaded a pass to Kessel. Luongo made the stop but the rebound went right to Crosby, who pounded it home at 10:01 of the second period to reach 30 goals for the ninth time in his career.
Trocheck, a Pittsburgh native, evened it at 2 when his one-timer from the bottom of the left circle zipped past Murray with 2:29 to go in the second.
Florida couldn’t take advantage of a Pittsburgh penalty in the third period and the Penguins responded with just their second overtime victory since Dec. 17.
"I think (our overtime record) has kind of hurt us a little bit this year," Guentzel said. "It’s something we all took pride in that we can do better, and they’re big points right now."
NOTES: Pittsburgh D Kris Letang skated in the morning but continues to wear a red "no contact" jersey while recovering from an upper-body injury that has sidelined him for the last four games. … The Penguins are the fourth NHL team to have two players reach 1,200 points with one franchise, joining Boston, Montreal and Detroit. … The Panthers went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 2.
Panthers: Play at Boston on Thursday.
Penguins: Host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. The Penguins have won each of the first two meetings between the Metropolitan Division rivals.