Penguins inch closer to playoff spot, top Hurricanes 3-1

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Matt Murray stopped 37 shots and the Pittsburgh Penguins inched closer to a playoff berth with a 3-1 win over Carolina on Sunday night.

Matt Cullen, at 42 the NHL’s oldest player, had a goal and an assist for Pittsburgh. Garrett Wilson collected his first goal in nearly two months and Patric Hornqvist added his first even-strength score since early January. Murray did the rest while as the Penguins took a major step toward assuring itself of a spot in the postseason for the 13th consecutive year, the longest active streak in the league

Pittsburgh needs just two points over its final three games or a loss by Montreal to lock up a playoff spot.

Carolina’s bid to reach the postseason for the first time in a decade took a hit. The Hurricanes have 93 points with a week to go in the regular season, just one point ahead of the ninth-place Canadiens.

Jacob Slavin’s power-play goal with just under 8 minutes to go spoiled Murray’s bid for a shutout but by then the Penguins were firmly in control. Curtis McElhinney finished with 25 saves while losing for the third time in four starts.

Playing without injured stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the Penguins relied on their depth and the kind of defensive grit they’ve lacked at times this season. Carolina came in leading the NHL in shots per game (34.5), but could get little going in front of Murray until it trailed by three.

Wilson put the Penguins in front just past the midway point of the first period, crashing the net following a feed by Cullen from the corner and then jabbing at the puck until it emerged from a pile of bodies in front of McElhinney and slid across the goal line.

Cullen, playing in his 1,513th career game — one shy of tying Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman for 19th on the NHL’s all-time games played list — doubled Pittsburgh’s advantage late in the first period when he and Olli Maatta broke in on McElhinney 2 on 1. Rather than slip the pass to his teammate, Cullen zipped a wrist shot from the right circle that sailed over McElhinney’s right arm and into the net for his seventh of the season.

Hornqvist, who left briefly in the first period when his head hit the boards while getting checked by Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton, earned a measure of revenge 46 seconds into the third period when he collected a blind backhanded drop pass from Dominik Simon and beat McElhinney from the bottom of the right circle. The goal was Hornqvist’s 18th of the year and his first non-power play tally since Jan. 6.

Carolina mustered little in response.

The Hurricanes didn’t reach double digits on the shot counter until past the game’s midway point as the Penguins clogged the shooting lanes. When Carolina did manage to find some space, Murray either came up with the stop or the Hurricanes couldn’t get the bounce they needed. Sebastien Aho hit the post from the left circle in the second period and when the Hurricanes did finally get it going midway through the final period, it was too late.

Slavin’s seventh of the season provided a bit of life, but Pittsburgh withstood a push over the final minutes to all but assure itself of a chance to make a run at its third Stanley Cup in four seasons.

NOTES: Letang, Malkin, F Zach Aston-Reese and D Chad Ruhwedel all skated on Sunday morning but remain out with injuries. … The Hurricanes went 1 for 2 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 1. … The teams split the season series 2-2. … Pittsburgh rookie Adam Johnson picked up the first two assists of his career.


Hurricanes: Visit Toronto on Tuesday.

Penguins: Begin a home-and-home series with the Red Wings on Tuesday in Detroit.