PITTSBURGH — Derrick Pouliot enjoyed one of the best days of his young life, playing a key role in another win for the surging Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 20-year-old Pouliot scored in his NHL debut and Sidney Crosby ended his drought with a third-period goal for the Penguins during their 3-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
"It's incredible ... something you dream about," said Pouliot, selected No. 8 overall in the 2012 draft held at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center. "First NHL game, first goal ... it's very exciting."
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 45 shots to earn his fifth win in six games and 19th overall for the Eastern Conference leaders.
Pouliot, a prized prospect on defense, scored the eventual game-winner in the first period after he was recalled earlier in the day.
"It was nice to see Pouliot get a goal," said Penguins coach Mike Johnston, who coached Pouliot when he played for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks.
"He has really good offensive instinct of when to jump in and I thought that resulted in a goal."
Nick Spaling netted his fifth for the Penguins, who won a season-high fifth straight game at home. Pittsburgh has defeated Florida in 12 of the last 14 meetings at home and 21 of 29 overall.
Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck, a healthy scratch the previous two games, scored his third of the season for the Panthers, who went to overtime in their previous four games.
"They're a good team, but if we play like that every night, I think we'll win more games than we lose," Florida coach Gerard Gallant said.
Crosby scored his 10th goal of the season and first in nine games. Crosby, who missed three games with the mumps, remains among the league leaders in scoring despite recording just three points in his last seven games.
Crosby redirected a pass from Kris Letang over Roberto Luongo's pad at 7:01 of the third, giving Pittsburgh a two-goal lead just seconds after the Panthers hit the post, looking for the equalizer.
"We hit a lot of posts tonight," Gallant said. "Sometimes we didn't have puck luck."
Pouliot was wide open on his game-winner. The rookie snuck behind the play from the blue line to the right faceoff dot, where he took a pass from Steve Downie and beat Luongo with an under-the-crossbar wrist shot.
"I saw my opportunity to lose my man in coverage and Downie made a good backdoor pass," Pouliot said.
"My eyes kind of lit up when I got the puck because I can hit that shot most of the time."
He nailed it on Saturday and dropped to one knee, pumping his fist in celebration.
"I was pretty excited," said Pouliot, who plans to give the puck to his parents for safe-keeping. "It was my first goal, so the adrenaline was going."
Pouliot, who leads the team's Wilkes-Barre AHL affiliate in scoring, made his debut while Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin missed the game with undisclosed injuries. Pouliot took shifts with 10-year veteran Rob Scuderi and even had time on the Penguins' second-ranked power-play unit.
Pouliot joined Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin — two of Pittsburgh's other highly touted young blue-liners — with Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo sidelined because of upper-body injuries.
Top-line winger Chris Kunitz returned to a Penguins team battling injuries and a recent bout with the mumps after missing eight games with a broken foot.
"The more guys you see coming back, the better it feels," Crosby said. "We haven't let it frustrate us."
The Panthers needed overtime in five of their previous seven games, including a league-record, 20-round shootout Tuesday against Washington. Florida, with an NHL-high 13 games past regulation, went to overtime in its previous four, winning three via shootout.
"The guys are disappointed, but overall I think they're real happy with the way they played," Gallant said.
The teams combined for 36 shots and 15 penalties totaling 38 minutes during a contentious opening period.
Pittsburgh scored 1:48 into the game as Luongo had trouble trying to glove Spaling's fluttering wrist shot from just below the blue line.
Florida pulled within one 35 seconds after Pouliot's first NHL goal when Trocheck tipped Jonathan Huberdeau's shot underneath Fleury's blocker.
"They're a great team, they're leading our conference, but we want another crack at them," Gallant said, referencing Monday's meeting between the teams in Florida.
NOTES: Panthers D Aaron Ekblad passed Dmitry Kulikov for the franchise record for assists by a rookie defenseman. ... Panthers forward Brad Boyes played after missing Thursday's game with an upper-body injury. ... Pouliot became the fifth player to make his NHL debut with the Penguins this month.