PITTSBURGH — Don’t look now, all you playoff-bound NHL teams. The speeded-up and streaking Pittsburgh Penguins might be gaining on you.
Phil Kessel scored Pittsburgh’s first two goals and the surging Penguins neared their 10th consecutive playoff appearance, delaying the Nashville Predators’ own postseason clinching with a 5-2 victory Thursday.
Kris Letang and Nick Bonino each scored a goal and set up another as the NHL’s hottest team won its fourth in a row and 10th in 11 games.
“I thought we were a step behind them, they were quicker, they were faster and they deserved to win,” Predators defenseman Roman Josi said.
That’s been a theme for weeks now that the Penguins got noticeably faster and quicker — and are moving the puck with more speed — with the addition of players such as Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, plus four rookies added from the minors.
The Penguins, in danger of not making the playoffs for much of the season, went 12-4-0 in March and are 29-15-5 under coach Mike Sullivan. They moved into second place in the Metropolitan Division as the New York Rangers lost 4-3 at Carolina, and they can clinch a playoff spot with two more points gained or two more not gained by the Detroit Red Wings.
“We always believed in here — we knew we had a good squad and he kept on battling and improving,” Kessel said. “This game’s a lot about confidence and when you’re a confident hockey player, things are easier out there.”
Former Pittsburgh right winger James Neal had a goal and an assist, but the Predators failed for the third time this week to clinch a Western Conference wild-card berth. They also could have advanced by beating Colorado on Monday or Dallas on Tuesday, but lost to both.
“It’s all about getting there, it doesn’t matter if you win the last four or you lose the last four, as long as you get in,” Predators winger Filip Forsberg said. “As long as you’re in, any team can win it.”
Just like the Penguins themselves think they could.
“We were a hard team to play against, and we’ve been talking about that for months,” Sullivan said. “Right now our guys are buying in, they believe in one another and they’re playing hard.”
Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne (25 saves), who lost to the Penguins for the sixth straight time, was pulled at the start of the third for Carter Hutton after the Penguins scored at least four goals for the seventh time in 10 games.
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made 22 saves to assure himself of a seventh 35-win season.
The Penguins allowed the first goal in six of their previous seven games — rallying to win five — but Kessel scored this time with 3:06 gone.
Bonino’s no-look, backhand pass from along the boards found Schultz in the right circle and he immediately steered it to Kessel, who was set up along the goal line for his 24th goal of the season.
The Predators tied it briefly after Neal ran down a skittering puck behind the net and fed it to Ryan Johansen at the right post for his 14th goal of the season with a minute left in the first period.
But Kessel made it 2-1 early in the second period with a high-velocity wrist shot from the right circle that Rinne had no time to defend, giving Kessel his 25th goal of the season and his fifth two-goal game in his first year with Pittsburgh.
“Phil’s speed is noticeable, he’s dangerous off the rush … he’s a threat, consistently,” Sullivan said.
Letang, coming off a career-high 34:15 played against Buffalo on Tuesday night, made it 3-1 midway through the second period with a similar shot on a power play. Chris Kunitz faked a shot in the right circle before feeding Letang in the high slot for a slap shot and his 16th goal.
Before Letang’s goal, the Penguins’ power play was 5 of 56 (8.9 percent) since center Evgeni Malkin went out with an upper-body injury on March 11.
After Neal scored his eighth goal in his last nine games for Nashville — and his 31st overall — at 14:24 of the second period, that suddenly productive Penguins’ power play made it 4-2 exactly four minutes later.
Patric Hornqvist, without a goal for eight games, set up in front of Rinne and deflected Daley’s shot from the right circle, with Letang picking up the second assist and his sixth point in four games.
Letang also had the decisive shootout score as the Penguins beat the Sabres 5-4 on Tuesday.
The Penguins own a 99-60 scoring edge in the second period this season.
NOTES: The Predators played Thursday in Pittsburgh without D Ryan Ellis, who took a puck off the side of his head on Tuesday against Colorado. Ellis had a point in three of four games, including a short-handed goal against the Avalanche. D Stefan Elliott was recalled from Milwaukee (AHL). … Penguins C Sidney Crosby picked up his 599th career assist on Letang’s goal. … Pittsburgh Penguins RW Bryan Rust was chosen as the team’s rookie of the year but sat out against the Predators with a lower-body injury. … Penguins C Evgeni Malkin, out since March 11 with an upper-body injury, is skating again but is not close to returning. He is expected to miss the rest of the regular season and perhaps the first round of the playoffs if Pittsburgh qualifies. … Penguins C Mike Sullivan again tweaked his top power play unit, matching C Sidney Crosby, LW Chris Kunitz and RW Phil Kessel with D Kris Letang and D Trevor Daley. On Tuesday, the Penguins opened with RW Beau Bennett, RW Patric Hornqvist and D Justin Schultz on the top unit. … The Predators scratched Ellis, D Anthony Bitetto, LW Eric Nystrom, C Colin Wilson and LW Gabriel Bourque. The Penguins held out three injured players: D Olli Maatta, D Brian Dumoulin and Rust, plus G Jeff Zatkoff.