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Malkin's MVP-caliber season keys Pens' clinch

by Dave Lozo
The Pittsburgh Penguins salted away a playoff berth with 5-1 victory against the Nashville Predators on Thursday. It's been an injury-filled season for the Penguins, but they found a way to overcome the adversity.

How did the Penguins get themselves to the postseason? Here are six reasons:

1. Evgeni Malkin -- He probably could be five of the six reasons. With Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang missing for lengthy stretches, Malkin threw the Penguins on his back and has delivered a Hart Trophy-worthy season. He leads the NHL in points despite missing seven games with a knee injury early in the season. In the 40 games that followed Crosby leaving the lineup with a recurrence of concussion symptoms Dec. 9, Malkin posted 29 goals and 31 assists.

James Neal
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 35 | ASST: 41 | PTS: 76
SOG: 295 | +/-: 14
2. James Neal -- Perhaps it's unfair to "expect" someone to average 1.4 points per game like Malkin has, but he's one of the best players in the world and has proven he's capable of it in the past. With Neal, who was coming off a career-worst 22-goal campaign in 2010-11, no one could have expected the career-best offensive numbers he's put up this season. The 24-year-old has been riding shotgun on a line with Malkin and Chris Kunitz for most of the season, and despite the trio consistently receiving all the attention from the opposition's best defensemen and checking lines, Neal has produced in a fashion that's making the Alex Goligoski for Neal and Matt Niskanen deal with the Stars last season look very one-sided.

3. Marc-Andre Fleury -- Following Crosby's comeback game against the Rangers on March 15, a 5-2 Penguins victory, coach Dan Bylsma joked how Fleury's 29-save performance was getting lost in the shuffle, which is nothing new in Pittsburgh. Fleury will set a career-high in wins this season and likely will register the best goals-against average in his career. He's made 57 starts and carried the load all season with backup Brent Johnson struggling and injured.

4. The new Matt Cooke -- His suspension for the first round of the playoffs last season may have been the difference between the Penguins beating the Lightning in seven games and losing in seven games, which they did after being up 3-1 in the series. All Cooke has done this season is transform his game completely, eliminating the dirty hits that left his team shorthanded while improving his game at the
Matt Cooke
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 34
SOG: 133 | +/-: 3
offensive end. Cooke has 16 goals, a career-high, and has taken just 15 minor penalties. Last season, Cooke took 37 minors. His newfound discipline is a big reason why the Pens have been shorthanded the 11th-fewest times this season after finishing 29th in that category last season.

5. Depth on defense -- Kris Letang has missed 28 games due to concussion-related problems, but has been Norris-worthy while in the lineup. He's not the only one on the back end, however, who has contributed. The Penguins have dressed 12 defensemen this season, and only Zbynek Michalek is a minus-player at minus-1. Niskanen has proven to be quite the valuable "throw-in" in the Neal/Goligoski trade; Deryk Engelland has shown he's not just a scrapper in his second full season; Brooks Orpik has been a defensive rock; and even youngster Simon Despres has gotten the job done in his time in the NHL. Every team deals with injuries, but having organizational depth is the difference between playoff teams and also-rans.

6. Dan Bylsma's steadying effect --
Sometimes it gets taken for granted how hard it is to keep a team from losing faith when it's without its best player for a long stretch. Bylsma has made it look easy over the last two seasons, keeping the Penguins on top without the likes of Crosby, Letang and even Jordan Staal for a bit this season with a knee injury. Most teams would crumble, or at the very least stumble, with losses like that, but Bylsma kept finding lineups that worked and combinations that produced victories until the team could get healthy.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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