By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Phil Kessel never gave up hope. Not through the early season funk that cost former coach Mike Johnston his job. Not during those bumpy first weeks under Mike Sullivan, when the Pittsburgh Penguins tried to simultaneously learn new habits while trying to forget bad ones.
Consider the process nearly complete. Kessel is scoring. The Penguins are flying. The playoffs are beckoning.
Kessel scored twice and Pittsburgh moved within striking distance of a 10th consecutive postseason berth with a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night. Buried in 11th in the East when Johnston was fired on Dec. 12, the Penguins are now second in the Metropolitan Division and can clinch a playoff berth Friday if Detroit loses in regulation to Minnesota.
"I think we always believed in here," Kessel said. "We always knew we had a good squad. We just kept on battling and proved it."
The Penguins have won four straight and are 10-1 in their last 11, nine of those triumphs without star center Evgeni Malkin. Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bonino also scored for Pittsburgh while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 shots to reach 35 wins for the seventh time in his career.
"We had a tough time, we couldn't get consistency for a few months and that hurt us," Fleury said. "We were out of it for a while. I thought it was also a good thing that we all figured it out and found a way to come back and win some games."
James Neal and Ryan Johansen each had a goal and an assist for the Predators, who let a chance to lock down a playoff berth slip away once again. Nashville has dropped three straight for the first time since a four-game slide from Jan. 5-12, blunting the momentum of a six-week surge that thrust the Predators into the top wild-card position in the Western Conference.
"We didn't have the jump and the pop that we needed in order to execute," coach Peter Laviolette said. "Everything was a little slow. Our puck movement, our forecheck, faceoffs, everything was off, slow."
Pekka Rinne stopped 25 shots before sitting out the third period in favor of backup Carter Hutton. Like Pittsburgh, the Predators can earn a postseason bid without even playing on Friday night if Washington beats Colorado.
"We've been doing this for 70 something games and obviously, it's all about getting in," Nashville forward Filip Forsberg said. "It doesn't matter if you win the last four or you lose the last four, as long as you get in. It's all about getting in."
The Penguins improved to an NHL-best 12-4 this month, a run made all the more impressive by their sometimes lifeless starts. Pittsburgh fell behind Buffalo by three goals in the opening period on Tuesday before roaring back for a 5-4 shootout victory thanks in large part to a career-high 35:14 from Letang, who finished off the rally with the deciding shootout goal.
There was no sleepy first period this time. Kessel converted a pretty cross-ice feed from Justin Schultz into an open net just 3:06 into the game. But Johansen tied it with a minute to go in the first after slamming a Neal pass from behind the net by Fleury.
Kessel gave the Penguins the lead for good with a sizzling wrist shot from the right circle that whizzed by Rinne's right arm and into the top corner 2:29 into the second for his 25th of the season. Letang, who logged another 28:50 of ice time, ended the Penguins' 3-for-29 power play slump by calling for the stick at the point and drilling one past Rinne just past the game's midway point.
Neal made it a one-goal game at the 14:24 mark of the second when he pounded sent a shot from the slot past Fleury, his former teammate.
The Penguins, however, just kept coming. Hornqvist parked himself in front of Rinne and stood there unfettered before deflecting home a slap shot by Trevor Daley to make it 4-2 late in the second.
Rinne stayed on the bench in the third period and the Penguins improved to 36-0 when leading after two by relying on Fleury and a steady forecheck that stopped the Predators from generating any sustained momentum.
NOTES: Kessel has 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in his last 22 games. ... Penguins center Sidney Crosby had one assist to give him 599 in his career. ... Pittsburgh went 2 for 4 on the power play. The Predators were 0 for 4 with the man advantage. ... The Penguins play at the Islanders on Saturday. ... Nashville hosts San Jose on Saturday.
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