PITTSBURGH (AP) -Once the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Evgeni Malkin, then Sidney Crosby, they were convinced they would someday have two stars and a team to rival the Stanley Cup-winning days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. What they couldn't predict was when.
That day, and the Penguins' first division title in 10 years, arrived on Wednesday night. And it came a lot sooner than even their coach expected.
Fittingly enough, it was Crosby and Malkin who scored the biggest goals of the Penguins' 4-2, power play-driven victory over the Philadelphia Flyers that earned them their first division championship since 1998 and sole possession of the Eastern Conference lead. They have 102 points to Montreal's 100, though the Canadiens have two games remaining to the Penguins' one.
"It's a great accomplishment to win the division because we all know that this division is really tough," coach Michel Therrien said of the Atlantic Division, which may supply half of the conference's eight playoff teams. "We went through a lot of adversity. We had a lot of injuries. We have come a long way from two years ago."
Then, even with Crosby in their lineup as a rookie, the Penguins finished last in the conference standings and next-to-last in the overall NHL standings. Now, only 24 months removed from that 58-point season, they could own home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
In other NHL games, it was: Chicago 6, Detroit 2; New Jersey 3, Boston 2 in a shootout; and Carolina 6, Tampa Bay 2.
Remarkably, they've accomplished this with Crosby sitting out about one-third of the season with a high ankle sprain and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury missing half of it with the same injury. Gary Roberts, their most playoff-tested player, has been out since late December because of multiple leg injuries.
With all of this on top of a sluggish 8-11-2 start, Therrien gladly would have settled for making the postseason.
"We were just trying to focus and maintain our position to make the playoffs," Therrien said. "The guys surprised me with their commitment."
Apparently, they didn't surprise themselves.
"Everyone knew we could do it. It (adversity) is something every team goes through," Jordan Staal said. "This team has such great talent and just went on a roll."
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Crosby had not scored at home since Jan. 3 when he tied it at 2 in the second period, with the Penguins owning a two-man advantage created when Crosby took Scott Hartnell's charging penalty. Crosby got a second goal, the 24th of his shortened season, late in the third on another power play.
Before that, Malkin gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead with his 47th goal - and one of his most difficult. Visibly tired after being on the ice for 1 1/2 minutes of a power play, Malkin swooped in from center ice after two Flyers collided in their own end, grabbed the puck and beat goalie Martin Biron cleanly on a wrist shot.
It was a potentially costly loss for the Flyers, who fell into eighth place in the conference, a point behind Boston and only one ahead of Washington. The Flyers have home games remaining Friday against New Jersey and Sunday against Pittsburgh.
The Flyers tried to set a physical tone while taking a 2-1 lead in a first period that featured two fights, four more skirmishes and a lot of back-and-forth jawing. But the Flyers repeatedly hurt themselves by taking retaliatory penalties, and Pittsburgh took advantage by going 4-for-6 on the power play to Philadelphia's 1-for-5.
"I thought the guys played hard, they were wrapped up on the bench, almost too wrapped up at times because things aren't getting called, and emotions run away," coach John Stevens said.
Or, as Crosby said, exactly what the Penguins were intent on avoiding, something they've done while winning their past three games against the Flyers after dropping their first four.
"It takes getting used to," Crosby said. "You have to learn to make sure you're focused on what you need to do out there. It took me a period to realize that and not get caught up in it."
Rookie Patrick Kane had a goal and two assists, and host Chicago kept its slim playoff hopes alive.
The Blackhawks, who won their third straight, must win their final two games to have any chance of reaching the postseason.
Cam Barker, Jordan Hendry, Robert Lang, Dustin Byfuglien and Adam Burish also scored for the Blackhawks, who dealt the Red Wings their first regulation loss in seven games (5-1-1).
Henrik Zetterberg and Kirk Maltby scored for the Red Wings.
Zach Parise scored the only goal in a four-round shootout and host New Jersey topped Boston for its third straight win.
Martin Brodeur stopped Bruins shooters Glen Metropolit, Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Marco Sturm in the first four rounds, setting up Parise's duel with Tim Thomas.
The Bruins inched closer to a playoff spot, earning a point for the sixth straight game (3-0-3) on goals by Dennis Wideman and Milan Lucic.
Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson scored for the Devils, with Clarkson's goal with 5:28 left in regulation forcing an entertaining overtime that featured 10 shots.
Chad LaRose scored three goals to lead Carolina past Tampa Bay, moving the host Hurricanes within one win of the Southeast Division title.
Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu each had a goal and an assist, and Scott Walker also scored for Carolina, which broke a 1-all tie by scoring four straight goals. The Hurricanes lead Washington by two points in the Southeast race with one game left. The Capitals have two games remaining.
Martin St. Louis had a goal and an assist, Jeff Halpern scored and Mike Smith stopped 26 shots for last-place Tampa Bay.
|Scott Hartnell (24) Wrist shot - ASST: Daniel Briere (41), Vinny Prospal (37)|
1 - 0 PHI
|PPG - Sergei Gonchar (12) Snap shot - ASST: Sidney Crosby (48), Evgeni Malkin (59)|
1 - 1 Tie
|PPG - Jeff Carter (29) Wrist shot - ASST: Joffrey Lupul (26), Braydon Coburn (27)|
2 - 1 PHI
|PPG - Sidney Crosby (23) Snap shot - ASST: Sergei Gonchar (52), Marian Hossa (36)|
2 - 2 Tie
|PPG - Evgeni Malkin (47) Wrist shot - ASST: Ryan Whitney (28)|
3 - 2 PIT
|PPG - Sidney Crosby (24) Tip-in - ASST: Sergei Gonchar (53), Marian Hossa (37)|
4 - 2 PIT
|Riley Cote Fighting (maj) against Georges Laraque|
|Georges Laraque Fighting (maj) against Riley Cote|
|Jeff Carter Roughing against Hal Gill|
|Hal Gill Tripping against Joffrey Lupul|
|Joffrey Lupul Fighting (maj) against Brooks Orpik|
|Brooks Orpik Fighting (maj) against Joffrey Lupul|
|Lasse Kukkonen Roughing against Sidney Crosby|
|Sidney Crosby Roughing against Lasse Kukkonen|
|Braydon Coburn Holding against Evgeni Malkin|
|Scott Hartnell Charging against Sidney Crosby|
|Brooks Orpik Delay of game|
|Scott Hartnell Roughing against Brooks Orpik|
|Hal Gill Hooking against Mike Richards|
|Jim Dowd Hooking against Sidney Crosby|
|Daniel Briere Roughing against Jarkko Ruutu|
|Jarkko Ruutu Interference against Daniel Briere|
|Georges Laraque Roughing against R.J. Umberger|
|Marian Hossa Hooking against Patrick Thoresen|
|Jason Smith Cross checking against Ryan Malone|
|Scott Hartnell Roughing against Jarkko Ruutu|
|Jarkko Ruutu Roughing against Scott Hartnell|
|Sergei Gonchar Hooking against Daniel Briere|
|Mike Knuble Hooking against Sidney Crosby|