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The Pittsburgh Penguins may have saved their season with a perfect five-game road trip. For the rest of the month, they'll have the chance to keep climbing up the standings at home.
Pittsburgh has won six in a row and will close March with nine of 10 games at Mellon Arena starting Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers, who along with the Penguins are fighting for one of the final four Eastern Conference playoff spots.
Pittsburgh (35-26-6) was three points out of the East's eighth playoff spot when it began a five-game trip in Chicago on Feb. 27, but went 5-0 to get back into the postseason picture.
One of those wins came against Florida on Thursday, 4-1 as Sidney Crosby returned after missing four games due to a groin injury. He scored a goal in his return and had another big game Sunday in Washington, where he was injured Feb. 22 in a 5-2 loss.
Crosby had a goal and an assist in regulation and added the lone shootout goal to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 victory, its sixth straight to pull even with the Panthers (34-24-8) in the East.
"Today was a good challenge to see where we stack up, see where we're at, see where our players are at, see where our team's at," interim coach Dan Bylsma said.
"It wasn't a perfect game, but it was a perfect road trip."
Pittsburgh has won six of seven at home, and will get plenty of chances to continue its playoff push at Mellon Arena over the next three weeks. The Penguins travel to Columbus on Thursday before finishing March on an eight-game homestand.
The Pens' six-game overall winning streak matches their season high, set Nov. 1-15. Pittsburgh hasn't won seven in a row since an eight-game run Dec. 23, 2007-Jan. 10, 2008.
Extending the winning streak might not be easy against the Panthers, whose only loss in their last four games came against the Penguins. Florida bounced back from that defeat with a 5-3 home win over St. Louis on Saturday behind a hat trick from David Booth.
Booth, the Panthers' leading goal scorer with 24, had one goal in his previous 15 contests. He rediscovered his scoring touch against the Blues, recording his second hat trick of the season and adding an assist.
"You have to keep working hard and eventually they'll go in," Booth said. "You play with great players and they'll find you."
The Penguins and Panthers will meet once more in the final week of the season, with every game between now and then critical as they battle Montreal, Carolina, Buffalo and the New York Rangers for the fifth through eighth playoff slots in the conference.
"The way the conference is going to flip-flop back and forth for the next three or four weeks we're not going to throw any parties when we're in fifth and we're not going to have any funerals if we fall to eighth or ninth," Florida coach Peter DeBoer said. "... It's nice to be in the middle of it."
Goaltending will also be critical as the season winds down, and both teams have a netminder playing well. The Panthers' Tomas Vokoun is 4-2-0 with a 2.17 goals-against average and two shutouts in his last six starts, while Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-0-0 with a 1.64 GAA and a shutout.
The Penguins are 3-7-1 in their last 11 home games against Florida.