Kris Letang’s return leads Penguins to win despite Tristan Jarry’s sudden absence

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered Tuesday’s home game against the Florida Panthers anticipating the long-awaited return of franchise defenseman Kris Letang.

But then they were thrown a plot twist worthy of Agatha Christie as they entered the contest without their All-Star goaltender, Tristan Jarry, who was hobbled because of an undisclosed injury.

With backup goaltender Casey DeSmith pressed into service, the Penguins claimed a wild and chaotic 7-6 victory against the Panthers at PPG Paints Arena.

A goal by Letang at 4 minutes, 6 seconds of the extra frame was the difference.

It is not known – publicly, at least – how Jarry was injured. Following Tuesday’s morning skate, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan proclaimed him as the starter for the contest. Jarry did not participate in warmups.

Following the game, Sullivan did not answer a question about when Jarry was injured on Tuesday and simply indicated he did not find out Jarry would not be available to play until the goaltender arrived at the arena prior to the contest. Additionally, Sullivan indicated Jarry’s ailment was still being evaluated.

This marked the eighth contest in January (out of 11) that Jarry has been sidelined due to injury. He missed seven games between Jan. 5 and 18 due to a suspected right leg injury he suffered on Jan. 2.

As for Letang, he played his first game since Dec. 28 after missing 11 contests due to an undisclosed injury as well as family matters following the death of his father, Claude Fouquet, on Dec. 31.

“The body is ready,” Letang said following Tuesday’s morning skate. “The mind is anxious. You want to get out there and play.”

Letang finished with two goals and two assists while logging 26:29 of ice time on 32 shifts. He also registered a team-high six shots on 10 attempts.

“I was just happy to be out there, do you know?” Letang said after the game. “Being in the atmosphere of the team.”

The Panthers got out to the first lead of the game 6:42 into regulation thanks to forward Sam Reinhart’s 16th goal of the season.

Taking a pass at the right point of the offensive zone, Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad swiped a one-timer that missed the mark and went wide to the far side. From the left of the crease, Reinhart settled the puck and lifted a wrister over DeSmith’s right leg. Ekblad and forward Aleksander Barkov had assists.

It became a two-score contest only 86 seconds later via a power-play goal from Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk.

From the center point of the offensive zone, Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour loaded up on a heavy wrister and fired it off the net. After Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin blocked the shot with his stick above the blue paint, a furious scramble for the rebound ensued and was culminated by Tkachuk chopping a forehand shot through DeSmith’s five hole for his 25th goal off assists from Montour and Barkov.

Letang helped the Penguins get on the scoreboard at 10:56 of the first period.

Taking a bank pass off the near boards at the right point of the offensive zone, Letang chucked a wrister toward the cage. Stationed just outside the right hashmarks, Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin allowed the puck to glance off his stick and through his legs toward the left of the crease. Surging past Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling, Penguins forward Rickard Rakell was able to deflect the puck with the forehand of his stick behind goaltender Alex Lyon’s right skate for his 18th goal. Malkin and Letang logged assists.

An unlikely source tied the game 2-2 exactly one minute later.

After gaining the offensive zone on the left wing, Penguins forward Drew O’Connor went wide to the near corner and centered a pass to the slot for linemate Ryan Poehling, who leaned down and swiped a one-timer. After Lyon rejected the shot with his right leg, forward Danton Heinen, hovering above the crease, was able to tap the rebound in past Lyon’s right skate for his fourth goal of the season and his first from him since Oct. 22. Assists went to Poehling and O’Connor.

Letang supplied the Penguins with their first lead of the game at 18:14 of the opening frame.

Taking a pass at center point of the Panthers’ zone, Dumoulin surveyed the scene and fired a shot/pass behind the right hashmarks where Letang, his long-time partner, deflected the puck with the forehand of his stick blade past Lyon’s left skate for his third goal. Dumoulin and Heinen claimed assists.

A misadventure by DeSmith allowed the Panthers to tie the contest again, 3-3, at 7:19pm of the first period.

Settling a puck near his own left corner, Ekblad chipped it up ice in hopes of springing Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway. The puck was bouncing upon arrival at the center red line and Verhaeghe allowed it to enter the offensive zone ahead of him. DeSmith took a gamble in hopes of poking the puck away at the right circle, but Verhaeghe parlayed that tactic into a goal with a one-handed jab that lifted the puck over DeSmith’s blocker and into the vacant cage for his 24th goal. The lone assist went to Ekblad.

Ekblad scored a short-handed goal to put the Panthers back in front, 4-3, at 10:34 of the second period.

After a neutral zone turnover by Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, Reinhart gained the offensive blue line near the center point and offloaded the puck to Ekblad surging towards the right circle. With Penguins defenseman Jeff Petry slow to react, Ekblad toasted DeSmith’s glove with a wrister on the near side for his eighth goal. Reinhart and Tkachuk tallied assists.

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby got on the scoreboard with his 23rd goal during a power-play sequence at 19:19 of the second period.

From behind his own blue line, Petry snapped a stretch pass that was partially deflected in the neutral zone by Barkov. After Guentzel slightly deflected the puck, it hit off the stick of Florida’s Anton Lundell at Florida’s blue line and bounced into the offensive zone. Crosby claimed the loose puck, surged past Forsling and attacked the cage. Upon approach, he smoothly tucked a backhander through Lyon’s five hole for his 23rd goal. Assists went to Guentzel and Petry.

The Panthers’ fourth line restored another lead, 5-4, 4:10 into the third period.

After winning a puck battle in the left corner of the offensive zone against Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, Panthers forward Ryan Lomberg fed a pass to linemate Nick Cousins ​​just below the left circle. Spinning off a check from Penguins rookie defenseman PO Joseph, Cousins ​​dished the puck to the near circle for Panthers forward Colin White, who danced across the front of the crease and shuffled a forehand shot behind a scrambling DeSmith for his sixth goal.

Things were tied again, 5-5, at 10:29 of the third period thanks to the Penguins’ fourth line when O’Connor cashed in on a goalmouth scramble for his third goal.

Taking a pass above the right circle of the offensive zone, Heinen tried to distribute the puck to Poehling — cutting from the right wing to the crease — but they failed to connect and Lyon was forced to make a save. On the rebound, Poehling had the presence of mind to backhand a pass from the left of the blue paint to the backdoor for O’Connor who tapped a backhander that fluttered up and hit off the left post. With Lyon well out of position, O’Connor had ample time for a mulligan and swept in a forehand shot. Poehling and Heinen had assists.

Malkin put the Penguins up 6-5 with a power-play goal at 14:30 of the third.

Settling a loose puck on the left half wall of the offensive zone, Crosby surveyed his options and dished a seam pass to above the right circle for Malkin, who clapped a one-timer that glanced off the left hand of Forsling and beat Lyon’s charred glove on the near side. Malkin was credited with his 17th goal off assists from Crosby and Letang.

The Panthers persisted and refused to allow this delirium of a contest to come to a conclusion in regulation by tying things for the final time, 6-6, at 17:28 of the third frame.

From in front of the Penguins’ bench, Tkachuk forced a cross-ice pass to no one in particular that was broken up by Malkin, who deflected the puck into the Penguins’ zone. Rakell failed to corral the puck and inadvertently deflected it toward his own right circle. That essentially served as a stretch pass for an aggressive Verhaeghe, who chased down the puck, went a bit deep below the goal line and drew DeSmith out of the crease, allowing Verhaeghe to tuck in a clever forehand shot. There were no assists.

In overtime, after each squad had a handful of quality scoring chances during three-on-three play, Montour struck Petry with a high stick at the 3:26 mark and gifted the Penguins a four-on-three power-play opportunity.

Corralling a loose puck at the left point, Letang drew in Barkov and backhanded a pass to Malkin above the right circle. Allowing the Panthers to retreat a bit towards their net, Malkin dished the puck back to Letang, who swiped a one-timer by Lyon’s blocker on the near side. Assists went to Malkin and Crosby, who supplied an effective screen on the sequence.

While DeSmith’s goals against average (3.34) and save percentage (.900) each took a couple of broadside hits, his record improved to 7-9-3 after he made 33 saves on 39 shots.

DeSmith received little notice that he would be starting on Tuesday.

“(Goaltending coach Andy Chiodo) just came in and told me I was going in while I was warming up in the gym, five minutes before I had to start getting dressed,” DeSmith said. “It was pretty last minute, but those things happen.”

Games with 13 goals and six different leads changes rarely happen.

“Sometimes, there’s games you can’t really explain,” Crosby said. “This one is a hard one to (explain). They don’t happen too often. Both sides, there’s some weird bounces. The puck seemed to find guys in different spots.

“Sometimes, those games happen. You want to be on the right side of them.”

Letang was happy to just be on the ice with his teammates — his extended family — after a disconsolate handful of weeks.

“These guys supported me for the last month,” Letang said. “It’s just great to be back.”

Notes:

• The Penguins registered 49 shots, their second-highest figure of the season. Their high-water mark remains the 52 they tallied in a 6-2 home win against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 13.

• On Tuesday, all 18 of the Penguins’ skaters recorded at least one shot.

• Dumoulin (124 points) surpassed forward Gregg Sheppard (123) for 73rd place on the franchise’s career scoring list.

• Heinen matched a career-high in points with a goal and two assists. His last goal and multi-point effort came during him a 6-3 road win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 22 when he scored two goals.

• The Penguins’ last overtime win against the Panthers was to a 3-2 home victory on March 5, 2019. Guentzel scored on a breakaway against goaltender Roberto Luongo in the extra frame.

• The Panthers were in a similar situation as the Penguins with regard to their goaltending. While goaltender Spencer Knight was included on the game roster, he did not physically sit on the bench during the game as he has been nursing an undisclosed injury.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice declined to clarify Knight’s status when asked about it following the game.

With starter Sergei Bobrovsky sidelined due to an undisclosed injury, Lyon, Florida’s third goaltender in the organization, played in his second game in as many nights. On Monday, Lyon made 20 saves on 25 shots in a 6-1 road loss to the New York Rangers.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at srorabaugh@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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