PITTSBURGH (AP) — The puck fluttered into the air and Matt Cullen turned away so he wouldn’t get smacked in the face.
Too bad. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward missed his fourth — and unlikeliest — goal of the season, one that helped propel Cullen’s surging team to a 4-0 victory over Winnipeg on Friday night that extended Pittsburgh’s winning streak to eight and pushed its early season funk further into the rearview mirror.
“Yeah it’s funny how that goes,” Cullen said after teammate Zach Aston-Reese’s pass caromed off Cullen’s left shoulder and past Connor Hellebuyck to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 first-period lead it would never come close to relinquishing. “When things are going not good, pucks are bouncing in your net and they’re not going in for you. Obviously this run here, things have gone our way.”
It’s not just luck. The Penguins bottled up the Central Division-leading Jets for long stretches, keeping them mostly to the outside and limiting the number of quality scoring chances goaltender Matt Murray faced. Murray responded by stopping all 33 shots for his third shutout of the season and ninth of his career.
A bit of a mess in October and November when he battled both injuries and his form, Murray is 7-0 with a 1.27 goals against average and a .961 save percentage since returning from a 13-game absence on Dec. 15.
“He always has a calm demeanor in goal, a quiet confidence when he’s at his best,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “From that standpoint I think he’s in a whole different place than he was mentally earlier in the year when it was a struggle not just for Matt but all of us.”
Olli Maatta picked up his first goal since late March when his shot from the point deflected off Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler and slipped past Hellebuyck 14:19 into the first. Cullen’s unlikely bank shot followed 33 seconds later and the Penguins were in firm control. Dominik Simon and Kris Letang also scored for Pittsburgh, which has won 10 of 11 overall.
The Penguins have won 18 straight over the Jets in Pittsburgh, a streak that dates back to 2007 when Winnipeg played in Atlanta. The Jets came in 8-1 in their last nine road games, but that momentum stopped abruptly at PPG Paints Arena, just like always.
“I think they were faster than we were, that’s a fact,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “But they looked like they’ve looked recently on their streak. They looked quick. They have real good sticks. Knocked a lot of stuff down. Blocked an awful lot of shots.”
Hellebuyck finished with 29 saves for Winnipeg and played spectacularly at times but received little help at the other end of the ice.
Pittsburgh’s eight-game run is the longest since it won eight in a row from March 26-April 7, 2016. The Penguins captured the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup that season and after stumbling through the early portion of the schedule, they appear ready to contend well into the spring again.
“If you go through a season and you don’t face a lot of adversity you’re inevitably going to face it in the playoffs,” Sullivan said. “The adversity this team has faced early in the season has made us a better team.”
The Jets carried the play for much of the second period in an attempt to get back in it but Murray stood firm and the Penguins extended their lead despite a magnificent effort by Hellebuyck. The Penguins came in on the rush and Evgeni Malkin slid the puck over to Simon, who redirected the puck toward the open net. The shot nicked the far post and Hellebuyck reached out to snatch it with his glove.
The call on the ice was a save but following a lengthy review — one that included the 552nd consecutive sellout chanting “goal” — officials ruled Hellebuyck caught the puck behind the goal-line to give the Penguins a three-goal cushion.
“What third goal? It wasn’t in,” Hellebuyck said. “There’s no way. I need to see the camera angle. I know they wouldn’t call it a goal if it wasn’t, but one camera angle shows it in and one doesn’t. From my view, I’ve been scored on like that and I was above that, so I don’t see it going in.”
NOTES: Penguins captain Sidney Crosby’s five-game multi-point streak ended. Crosby did appear in his 902nd career game. He will tie Hall of Famer and team owner Mario Lemieux’s franchise record of 903 games on Sunday night against Chicago. … Pittsburgh D Jamie Oleksiak returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion against Washington on Dec. 19. … The Penguins went 1 for 3 on the power play. The Jets went 0 of 1. … Winnipeg forward Nikolaj Ellers left in the first period with an injury and did not return.
Jets: Begin a stretch of 5 of 6 at home when they host Dallas on Sunday.
Penguins: Will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion squad Sunday when the Blackhawks visit.