A Penguins fan cheers as Penguins\' Evgeni Malkin skates in front of a couple of Canadiens fans after Malkin scored in the shootout. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
The Penguins squandered a two-goal lead late in the third period, but Evgeni Malkin won the shootout by deftly faking out David Aebischer with an inside-out move as Pittsburgh beat Montreal 5-4 on Thursday night for its fifth consecutive victory.
Erik Christensen also put the puck past Aebischer as the Penguins won their second shootout in a row - they beat Dallas 4-3 on Friday - after losing five of their first six. Montreal dropped its fifth in nine shootouts as Marc-Andre Fleury stopped the final two Canadiens shooters, Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec, after Alexei Kovalev had matched Christensen's score. Fleury made 40 saves in regulation and is 9-1-2 in his last 12 starts.
"I've never seen the (Eastern Conference) playoff race so close, five or six teams are so close, and it was a playoff atmosphere," said Sergei Gonchar, who scored twice on the power play and had another slap shot deflected in by Malkin. "You could see their intensity was there. But we're playing with more confidence."
The Canadiens trailed 4-2 after Gonchar scored twice during a rare seven-minute Pittsburgh power play in the second period. But Montreal tied it on goals by Mike Johnson and Mathieu Dandenault in the final 5½ minutes of the third, with Johnson's shot deflecting in off Gonchar and Dandenault's shot bouncing in off defenceman Rob Scuderi's skate.
"Those were tough bounces to take, but we stuck with it and got the two points," Penguins forward Sidney Crosby said.
Crosby, drilled in the midsection by Maxim Lapierre immediately after the opening faceoff to set the tone for a physical and feisty game, assisted on each of the Penguins' first three goals. Crosby became the first player to break the 80-point mark this season with 82, including 25 goals.
Montreal tried to establish its toughness from the start. But the Canadiens' aggressiveness cost them when Sheldon Souray was ejected for jumping on Colby Armstrong, punching him several times and slamming him to the ice after Armstrong levelled Saku Koivu behind the Montreal net.
"You expect teams to be intense, and they had that (checking) line out there to start the game and wanted to set a tone early," Crosby said. "That's part of playing in the second half of the season. Teams want to win hockey games and we're more than willing to play and do whatever we have to do to win games, too."
Souray was given a five-minute fighting major and a two-minute instigating penalty and, about midway into the extended penalty time, Montreal went down two men when Radek Bonk was called for interference.
"The penalties killed us," Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. "I understand the seven minutes but I just don't understand why Armstrong didn't get anything. I still think he was charging (Koivu) and then he drops his gloves. Armstrong knew what he was doing and dropped his gloves and didn't get anything."
Still, Carbonneau took Souray's side by saying, "Saku is our best player and if somebody does something like that to him, I have no problem with someone playing that way."
"I've never seen it called like that at all, it seemed to be one-sided," Souray said.
Bonk returned during the lengthy power play to score a short-handed goal, but Pittsburgh was already up 2-0 following Malkin's 25th goal and Gonchar's slap-shot goal as Jordan Staal screened Aebischer during a two-man advantage. Gonchar scored his second of the game and ninth of the season, on another slap shot from the high slot, with 15 seconds left in the Souray-caused power play.
"We're moving the puck well and I had a chance to shoot it," Gonchar said. "There was good traffic in front and the puck is finding the net."
Bonk scored again, his eighth, late in the second, but Christensen answered with his 10th of the season to make it 4-2 midway through the third.
Notes: Montreal led 44-33 in shots, 7-0 in overtime when Pittsburgh was short-handed for the final 1:40 after Gonchar was called for holding. ... Montreal leads the NHL with 15 short-handed goals. ... Crosby has more assists (57) than any Penguins player has points. Crosby has an eight-game scoring streak (4 goals, 13 assists). ... Penguins forward Mark Recchi turned 39 on Thursday. ... Aebischer made his second successive start, the first time he's done so since Nov. 7-11.