ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Penguins produced their most complete performance of the season during Wednesday's 5-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that it coincided with the return of one of the league's most complete defensemen in Kris Letang.
Letang scored a power play goal, picked up two points and finished with a team-high six shots on goal, reminding anyone who might have forgotten how important he really is to this team.
"He’s a great player," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think he’s probably one of the top two or three defensemen in the league, in my opinion. He’s that impactful on the game. He makes the players around him better.
"The types of minutes that he logs, I think it allows us slot all of our defensemen in the right spots, where they’re playing the right roles. That gives them all a chance to be successful."
Letang was returning from a five-game absence because of an upper-body injury.
The win helped the Penguins raise their record to 7-2-1 and enabled them to sweep the season series against the Ducks (4-5-2). The Penguins have now won seven of their past eight meetings with Anaheim.
"It felt good out there," Letang said. "It’s fun to participate on the scoring sheet, too."
Evgeni Malkin, Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, Letang and Patric Hornqvist scored to help Matt Murray (32 saves) earn the win in his first action since raising the Stanley Cup in San Jose on June 12.
Murray's start to the season was delayed after he broke his right thumb during the World Cup of Hockey on Sept. 19.
Flashing his familiar poise in net, Murray won his eighth consecutive regular season start. His only hiccup was a power play shot through traffic.
"It felt awesome," Murray said. "It’s been a long time. Way too long. You never want to be away from the game for that long. It’s a good feeling to get back and get a win in the first one. I think my job was pretty easy tonight. Team played extremely well, but I had enough in-tight battles and stuff like that to test my hand in a game situation. It felt really good. Pretty happy with how things went."
Letang got his goal early in the third period with the outcome mostly decided, a power-play tally at 1 minute, 27 seconds after he smoothly redirected a Justin Schultz attempt from in close.
That goal was surely appreciated. It gave the Penguins power play tallies in four consecutive games. But the bigger takeaway was Letang’s return to his fine form following a five-game absence.
This one started out following a familiar script when Chris Kunitz was called for slashing and Cam Fowler fired a long shot past Murray through traffic.
Only this time, the Penguins rallied in the second period – their calling card under coach Mike Sullivan last season but an Achilles heel so far in 2016-17.
They entered this one getting outscored, 12-6, in the middle session, but had out-shot the Ducks, 14-2, by the 9:39 mark Wednesday.
With the Penguins’ second-period stranglehold in full effect, Rust cashed in by banging home the rebound of a Nick Bonino backhander for his first of the season at 16:42 of the second, giving the Penguins a 3-1 lead.
Rust had gone without a goal in 15 of his past 16 regular season games.
"It felt nice just to play a little bit better, play a little bit more in the offensive zone, play a little bit more with the puck," Rust said. "Haven’t been playing the way I wanted to up until this game. I guess when you start playing a little better, good things happen."
Malkin scored the Penguins’ first goal – his sixth of the season and fourth in the past three games – by crushing a one-time feed from Kessel at 7:41 of the first period.
Malkin later continued one of his season-long trends, when he took a pair of penalties, interference and roughing, in the final minute of the second period. He's now been called for nine minor penalties this season, tops on the team. All of them have come in the final minute of the second period or later.
Cullen, celebrating his 40th birthday, received a spinning, backhand pass from Tom Sestito and beat Whitehall native John Gibson with a powerful shot blocker side to make it 2-0 at 10:24 of the first.
"It was fun," Cullen said. "Nice to get one, for sure. Nicer to get the win."
The goal gave Cullen points in seven of his first 10 games of the season, while Sestito, inserted into the lineup in place of Tom Kuhnhackl, notched his first point of the season.
"He doesn’t get a lot of credit, but he’s a good player," Cullen said of Sestito. "He makes good plays. He sees the ice. He can dish. That was a great play.
Anaheim challenged the goal call, believing it was offside, but it was deemed inconclusive and the goal stood.
Fowler’s goal came 61 seconds into the penalty on Kunitz, and it followed a series of failed clearing attempts, one of the Penguins’ most consistent issues on the penalty kill.
It’s the fifth consecutive game the Penguins have allowed a power play goal. But concern over that was dwarfed when the Penguins pressed hard in the second period to get it back and then exploded for three in the third.
"I really liked how we played," Sullivan said. "I thought we were skating. We were moving the puck. I thought we executed much better coming out of our end zone. … Overall, it’s probably one of our more complete games this year."
Around the boards: Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was a late scratch with an upper-body injury along with left wing Nick Ritchie. … Gibson left in the third period with an apparent groin injury. … With one assist, Sidney Crosby now has points in 24 of his last 25 regular season games played (15-20–35).