ATLANTA – Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said that after the Penguins' 5-2 regular season-ending victory against the Atlanta Thrashers, his players busily computed percentages to confirm that they indeed had finished with the League's top penalty-killing unit.
Even though the Penguins allowed Atlanta to score on 2-of-5 power-play chances on Sunday, they managed to hold on to that title – a skill that will help the Penguins immeasurably when they begin the playoffs later in the week and take on Tampa Bay, owner of the Eastern Conference's top power play and the second-most power-play goals in the League with 69.
"It's been a big part of our team and identity of our team all year long," said Bylsma, who rested top penalty-killers including Jordan Staal. "I know we were out there doing everything we could to hold them off in a couple of their power plays late. The guys are pretty proud of that number and that accomplishment."
Officially, the number is 86.1 percent. Down 4-2, Atlanta earned a power play when Pittsburgh's Aaron Asham went off for tripping at 13:59 of the third and the Thrashers had a chance to pull within one, but Pittsburgh killed that penalty and Mike Comrie scored an empty-netter – his first goal of the season in 21 games -– at 18:32 of the period.
As the cliché goes, back-up goalie Brent Johnson was the Penguins' best penalty killer and he made 37 saves to earn his 13th win of the season. The Penguins finished with 106 points – the second most in their history. Not bad considering that they played virtually the entire second half of the season without two of the best players in the League, Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee). Bylsma said after the game that there was "no change" since Friday in the status of Crosby, who has practiced with the team in recent weeks but has yet to be cleared for contact. On Friday, the coach said he was doubtful that Crosby would be ready for the team's playoff opener.
"In terms of road wins (24), second-most wins (49), second-most points, just having 106 points, it underlines what our team has been able to do and be a good team over the last 82 games," Bylsma said. "But especially with the adversity and the injury situation, it's undeniable that we've won hockey games throughout the year and we’ve won them a lot of different ways and we've been able to do that. So to get those stats, it just says a lot about the guys in that room and this team."
As Bylsma said, with Crosby and Malkin out of the lineup, the Penguins have had to find different ways to win, especially as they have struggled to score. In that sense, they provide an interesting contrast to the Lightning, whose Martin St. Louis finished second in the Art Ross Trophy race with 99 points and whose Steven Stamkos who finished second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 45 goals.
Bylsma said with the match-up of Tampa Bay seeming a strong likelihood for a while, the Penguins have had plenty of time to scout the Lightning. He watched some of their impressive 6-2 victory over Carolina on Saturday that prevented the Hurricanes from landing the East's eighth and final playoff berth.
"We've scouted them five other games prior to last night, so we have a fairly good feel for that situation," he said prior to the game. "They're an interesting team. They have real good skill, some skill players, some dangerous players. The power play’s a factor for their team. And with (Dwayne) Roloson, their goaltending has changed the last half of the season. And it's a little bit different. It's an interesting dynamic. They play a fast game, they're really good in and around the net, they try to get there and be factors and they play quick defensively.
"We've played them four times. We've had some success against them. They've beaten us twice in our building and we've beat them twice at home."
With Pittsburgh locked into the series before the game, Bylsma rested numerous players: Staal, Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal, who was injured in Friday's game but should be ready for the playoffs, Bylsma said.
Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis, Mike Rupp and Mark Letestu earned second-period goals after Pittsburgh fell down 1-0 at first intermission on Andrew Ladd's 29th goal. Defenseman Ben Lovejoy assisted on three of those goals.
"Some people made me look good with some second and third passes," Lovejoy said. "We were resting some guys, some of our star players and it allowed other players to step in. We were excited to play a bigger role when you're missing your best players guys are able to step in and do more."
Pittsburgh got started early in the second when Thrashers rookie defenseman Andrey Zubarev, in his fourth NHL game, was called for tripping. Kennedy netted his 21st goal at 6:25 on a wrist shot from the right circle to Atlanta goalie Chris Mason’s stick side as Pittsburgh's Eric Tangradi set a screen.
Dupuis, an ex-Thrasher, finished off a 2-on-1 with a redirection at the post at 10:53, as Max Talbot stopped on a dime at the right circle and fed a pass through the slot.
Rupp made it 3-1 by taking Eric Godard’s errant shot from the right side off the backboards and putting it in before Mason could get across the crease at 15:27.
Finally, Letestu beat Mason from a bad angle with a low wrist shot that leaked through the goalie at 18:14.
Tim Stapleton scored on the power play for Atlanta with 6:45 left in regulation, collecting a rebound of Ron Hainsey's big point shot. But Pittsburgh was able to hold off the Thrashers and reach those franchise milestones.
Next up, Tampa Bay.
"It was nice to be able to rest some guys," Talbot said. "By Philly winning yesterday, it put us fourth and we were able to rest some guys. At the same time, we were able to play the game the right way and I think it's not like you rest some guys and you can play half-speed and the game doesn't mean anything. You want to finish the season on the right foot and we did that tonight."