PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins managed to climb atop the Eastern Conference standings after enduring a trying month of injury and illness.
Now, help appears to be on the way.
Steve Downie scored twice after missing five games with the mumps, and the Penguins used a three-goal, first-period lead to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-3 on Friday night. The Penguins are tied with the New York Islanders for the most points in the conference with 53.
"We have guys coming back slowly and I think that gave us a boost," captain Sidney Crosby said. "As we get guys back, hopefully we can feed off that and continue to play the right way."
Chris Kunitz scored a power-play goal, his 12th of the year, and Evgeni Malkin netted his 17th — and just his second in 11 games — as Pittsburgh won its ninth straight home game against Tampa Bay. Crosby added four assists for the Penguins, who bolstered their depth at forward earlier in the day by acquiring left wing David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers.
"He's a top-six forward and a consistent 20-goal scorer," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said of Perron.
Andrew Ebbett added a goal and an assist, and Christian Ehrhoff also scored for Pittsburgh, which vaulted Tampa Bay for the top spot in the conference. Thomas Greiss, playing for the first time since he was diagnosed with the mumps, made 32 saves for his fourth win and first at home.
Brian Boyle, Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn had goals for the Lightning, whose four-game win streak ended.
Tampa Bay, which plays four of the next five away from home, has just two wins in its past eight road games.
The struggles have been magnified at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center where the Lightning have never won. Their last win in Pittsburgh came March 31, 2010, when the Penguins played at the now-razed Civic Arena.
Pittsburgh chased starter Ben Bishop, scoring three first-period goals on just 10 shots, but Evgeni Nabokov came on to stop 16 of 18 shots.
"It's the breaks of hockey," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "When you deserve it, you get the breaks, and when you don't, you don't. We didn't have a good start."
Tampa Bay, trailing 4-2 entering the third period, cut the deficit to a goal when Killorn worked around Penguins defenseman Simon Despres and slid a shot around an outstretched Greiss. But Downie got it back 34 seconds later, taking a behind-the-net pass from Crosby and waiting for Hedman to go down before sending a shot past Nabokov.
"We pull it back at 4-3 and we've got all the momentum in the world going," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "To have a shift like that and it's 5-3 is pretty much the nail in the coffin."
Pittsburgh, which spent the last month battling injury and a league-wide mumps outbreak, traded a 2015 first-round draft pick and center Rob Klinkhammer for Perron. The 26-year-old Perron, signed through 2015-16 at a salary cap hit of $3.81 million, struggled with five goals and 15 assists in 38 games, one season after a producing a career-best 28 goals and 57 points.
Perron, expected to join the team Saturday when the Penguins host Montreal, could play on the wing with Malkin or Crosby.
Pittsburgh, which scored three times in less than 14 minutes, opened with a power-play goal less than two minutes into the game.
Bishop had trouble with Kris Letang's shot from the point, but Kunitz pounced on the rebound, putting the Penguins ahead early.
Ebbett's goal at 6:50 was started by a sequence during which Malkin hit the far post, which mistakenly triggered the goal horn at the arena. Ebbett continued to play and lifted a backhander over Bishop's glove, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead.
"Sometimes the red light goes on, but not the horn, especially when it was such a clear shot off the post," Stamkos said. "It wasn't even close to being in the net. It's a tough bounce, but what are you going to do?"
Malkin later buried a one-time feed from Ebbett to give the Penguins a three-goal lead.
"You can't do that against any team in the league let alone the Pittsburgh Penguins," Cooper said. "It's really disappointing."
NOTES: Penguins F Nick Spaling recorded his 100th career point. ... Bryan Rust notched his first NHL assist on the Penguins' third goal. ... The game was officiated with a three-man system after referee Mike Leggo became ill during the first period. ... The teams played for the final time this season after meeting three times in the past 19 days. ... Pittsburgh scratched D Scott Harrington and C Jayson Megna, while D Radko Gudas (lower body), D Nikita Nesterov and F J.T. Brown were out for Tampa Bay.
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