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March of the Penguins continues vs. Jets

by John Kreiser
How good can the Pittsburgh Penguins be with a healthy Sidney Crosby? Good enough that a four-assist night by the Penguins' captain doesn't even get top billing.

Crosby had four assists Thursday night, giving him nine points in four games since return from a 3 1/2-month absence due to concussion symptoms. But he was overshadowed by teammates Evgeni Malkin (two goals, three assists) and James Neal (three goals and an assist) as the Penguins improved to 12-0-1 in their last 13 games by routing the Winnipeg Jets 8-4 on Tuesday night.

The Penguins are 3-0-1 since Crosby's return. He has nine assists in the four games -- and 21 in 12 games this season.

"It's much easier (to return) when the team is playing as well as we are," he said. "You always work hard and prepare to come back, but coming in with everyone playing so well … it makes that transition a lot easier."

Tuesday's win moved the Penguins within one point of the New York Rangers for the lead in the Eastern Conference standings.

With five games on Wednesday's schedule, here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after the nine played on Tuesday:


Division leaders:

New York Rangers (97 points) had the day off after Monday's 4-2 win against New Jersey. They continue their seven-game homestand against Detroit on Wednesday.

Boston (87 points) spent the day heading to California. The Bruins begin a tough stretch of three games in four days with a visit to San Jose on Thursday.

Florida (85 points after Tuesday's 2-1 win at Philadelphia) extended its winning streak to five games thanks to a brilliant 35-save performance by Scott Clemmensen, who hadn't started in eight games. Stephen Weiss and Sean Bergenheim scored for the Panthers, who visit Carolina on Wednesday.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (96 points after Tuesday's 8-4 win against Winnipeg) did almost anything it wanted offensively against Winnipeg for the second time in as many visits by the Jets this season. Malkin had five points against the Jets in both games, and the Penguins scored eight times in each game to beat the Jets' franchise for the 11th straight time in Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia (92 points after Tuesday's 2-1 loss to Florida) outshot the Panthers 36-13 but could get just one puck behind Scott Clemmensen. The Flyers are off until Washington comes to the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday.

New Jersey (89 points after Tuesday's 1-0 win at Ottawa) got only one goal against Ottawa, but it was one Ilya Kovalchuk will never forget -- he scored during a power play late in the second period to become the 87th player in NHL history to reach the 400-goal mark. That was enough offense for Johan Hedberg, who earned his fourth shutout of the season.

Ottawa (84 points after Tuesday's 1-0 loss to New Jersey) played without top-line center Jason Spezza, who sat out with an illness, and his absence showed. Erik Condra couldn't score on a first-period penalty shot, and Ottawa failed to take advantage of two late power plays -- including a 5-on-3 for 25 seconds.

Washington (80 points) had the first of two off-days before ending a five-game road trip in Philadelphia on Thursday.

On the outside looking in:

Buffalo (78 points) had Tuesday off before Montreal comes to the First Niagara Center on Wednesday. The Sabres will have defenseman Tyler Myers back in the lineup against the Canadiens after serving the final game of his three-game suspension in Monday's game at Tampa Bay.

Winnipeg (76 points after Tuesday's 8-4 loss at Pittsburgh) began a three-goal road trip by getting demolished in Pittsburgh for the second time this season. Tim Stapleton's goal late in the second period cut the deficit to 5-4, but the Penguins scored three times to put the game away. The Jets' season could be on the line when they visit Washington on Friday.


Division leaders:

St. Louis (100 points) is off until Wednesday, when its seven-game road trip continues at Anaheim.

Vancouver (94 points) begins a tough back-to-back with a visit to Chicago on Wednesday. The Canucks then go to Dallas on Thursday.

Dallas (85 points after Tuesday's 4-3 shootout win against Phoenix) couldn't hold a two-goal lead in the third period and allowed Phoenix to escape with a point. But Mike Ribeiro scored the only goal in the shootout and Kari Lehtonen denied all three Coyotes to keep the Stars on top of the Pacific Division.

The next five:

Nashville (92 points after Tuesday's 6-3 loss to Edmonton) continued to have troubles with the 14th-place Oilers, who won for the third time in their four meetings this season. Pekka Rinne was lifted after allowing three goals on just seven shots. The good news is that Alex Radulov, who left the Predators for Russia three years ago, is back in Nashville and is expected to rejoin the team on Wednesday.

Detroit (92 points)
doesn't know who will be in goal for Wednesday's game in New York against the Rangers. Jimmy Howard and Joey MacDonald are both hurt; the Wings are hoping Ty Conklin will clear waivers by noon ET. If he's claimed, rookie Jordan Pearce is expected to make his first NHL start.

Chicago (90 points after Tuesday's 5-1 win at Columbus) never gave the Jackets a chance to get into the game, grabbing a 3-0 lead before the first period was nine minutes old. Duncan Keith had four assists for the Hawks, who host Vancouver on Wednesday.

Colorado (85 points after Tuesday's 2-1 overtime win against Calgary) jumped into seventh place thanks to an overtime goal by David Jones that ended a nine-game losing streak against the Flames. The Avs play at Phoenix on Thursday.

Los Angeles (84 points after Tuesday's 5-2 win against San Jose) knocked off the Sharks as five players scored and Jonathan Quick stopped 20 shots. The Kings have ripped off five straight wins and have their next two games at home -- against St. Louis on Thursday and Boston on Saturday.

On the outside looking in:

Phoenix (84 points after Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss at Dallas) battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to get a point in Dallas -- and only some spectacular play by Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen in OT kept them from getting the second point.

San Jose (82 points after Tuesday's 5-2 loss at Los Angeles) got goals by Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle but was outplayed for most of the night by the Kings, who outshot the Sharks 42-22. After beating Nashville and Detroit to end last week, the Sharks dropped games to the Kings and Ducks on consecutive nights.

Calgary (82 points after Tuesday's 2-1 overtime loss at Colorado) grabbed the lead 1:47 into its game at Colorado on a goal by Matt Stajan. But that was the only one of the Flames' 32 shots to beat Semyon Varlamov, and Calgary let a desperately needed point get away. The Flames continue their road trip Thursday at Minnesota.
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