PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang seemed determined to play every minute, every second if it enabled the Pittsburgh Penguins to stage an improbable rally.
The Penguins did come back — and it was largely because Letang almost never came off the ice, even when the clock wasn’t running.
Letang and Phil Kessel converted Pittsburgh’s only two shots of the shootout and the surging Penguins stormed back from a three-goal deficit in the first period to beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 on Tuesday night.
Letang, the Penguins’ never-leave-the-ice defenseman, converted by going five-hole against goalie Chad Johnson (42 saves) after playing a career-high 35 minutes, 14 seconds. His 21 shootout conversions are the most by a defenseman since the NHL began its current overtime format.
“I didn’t want to rest (during the comeback), that’s for sure,” Letang said. “I felt pretty good. … We had our legs and it was just a matter of us finding our game.”
As Letang plays alongside the better-known Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he deserves more credit league-wide.
“His fitness level is off chart. He’s a tremendous competitor. He’s an elite defenseman — one of the most elite, in our minds,” Sullivan said. “He played monster minutes for us, and he does it every night.”
Just as it seems like the Penguins keep winning almost every night.
Closing in on a 10th consecutive playoff appearance, they won their ninth in 11 games and ninth in a row against Buffalo. Pittsburgh also moved to within a point of the second-place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division.
“We had a good first period, but we got away from what we were doing good in the second period and they made us pay,” Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe said. “They’re a good team and they’re in the playoff hunt, they want to get points and move up the standings.”
Tom Kuhnhackl and Nick Bonino scored short-handed 24 seconds apart late in the second period, finishing off a four-goal comeback that carried the Penguins from a 3-0 deficit after the first to a 4-3 lead after the second.
But the Sabres came back themselves with their third special teams goal — they also scored 4-on-4 — as Zach Bogosian scored his seventh on a power play 2:13 into the third.
The Penguins trailed 3-0 — the first time in three seasons they faced that deficit after just one period at Consol Energy Center — before defenseman Ben Lovejoy (fourth of the season) and rookie Conor Sheary (sixth) started their comeback by scoring about 4 1/2 minutes apart early in the second.
“The players have a certain resilience to them right now,” Sullivan said. “It trickles down to our young players. They’ve developed it over the last few months. We’ve been able to climb back into games, and it’s given them evidence we can do it.”
The game swung further when Kuhnhackl, another rookie who also assisted on the Lovejoy goal, and Bonino each scored with the Penguins killing off Eric Fehr’s tripping penalty late in the period.
Matt Cullen faked a shot from the left circle, only to deftly steer the puck to an undefended Kuhnhackl in front as the Penguins worked a 2-on-1 rush while down a man to tie it at 3 at 18:47.
The Penguins improbably seized the lead with their fourth straight goal by taking advantage of a bad giveaway by Johnson. With Johnson attempting to routinely clear the puck from behind the net, Carl Hagelin swiped it off his stick and fed it to a wide-open Bonino for his seventh of the season, at 19:11.
“It’s never a good thing when you give up a goal when you’re up a man, it’s frustrating,” Bogosian said. “And they scored two goals there. Whatever the reason was, it wasn’t a good way to end the second period.”
The Sabres seized their early lead as Matt Moulson and Ryan O’Reilly each ended long streaks without a goal and McCabe scored with the teams skating 4-on-4.
Moulson scored his first goal in 19 games and sixth overall, at 9:26 with the Sabres on a power play. The Sabres special teams then scored again — this time short-handed — when O’Reilly ended a 25-game streak without a goal with his 18th about five minutes later.
O’Reilly alertly knocked the puck into the net as it lay along the goal line following David Legwand’s shot from the point. McCabe scored off O’Reilly’s pass set up by rookie Jack Eichel’s faceoff win.
Penguins goalie Matt Murray made 26 saves as well as two in the shootout in the win. He played for the first time since March 17, when the Penguins trailed Carolina 2-0 before winning 4-2.
NOTES: The Penguins’ record for the two quickest short-handed goals is 12 seconds, by Phil Bourque and Randy Gilhen against New Jersey on Dec. 13, 1990. … Penguins C Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal on Sunday against the Rangers was his eighth. Only three Penguins players have had more: Mario Lemieux (11) and Jaromir Jagr and Evgeni Malkin (9 each). … Sabres LW Evander Kane (upper-body injury) did not play after being hurt in the third period of a 3-2 loss in Detroit. … Penguins D Brian Dumoulin (upper-body injury) sat out a second successive game. With Dumoulin and Olli Maatta (lower-body injury) both out, D Trevor Daley is teaming with Kris Letang on the top defensive pairing. … Penguins coach Mike Sullivan switched power-play personnel during the morning skate, with Crosby, RW Patric Hornqvist and RW Beau Bennett joining Letang and D Justin Schultz on the top unit. … Penguins G Matt Murray made his first start since beating the Hurricanes 4-2 on March 17. … Pittsburgh signed college free agent D Ethan Prow to a two-year, entry-level contract. … The Sabres scratched Kane, D Carlo Colaiacovo, D Cody Franson, G Jason Kasdorf and G Robin Lehner. The Penguins held out G Jeff Zatkoff, Dumoulin and Maatta.