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Penguins clinch division title, then top Jets

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- The Pittsburgh Penguins clinched the Metropolitan Division title Thursday night and welcomed back defenseman Paul Martin in a 4-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

The Penguins (49-23-5) won a division title for the second consecutive season; the actual clinching came during the game, when the Philadelphia Flyers lost 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh's 49 wins are tied for the third-highest total in franchise history. Dan Bylsma also became the fastest coach in NHL history to record 250 regular-season victories; he did it in 395 games.

The loss officially eliminated the Jets (34-34-10) from contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Martin's power-play goal 7:42 into the third period broke a 2-2 tie and capped off his return to the lineup after he missed 18 games with a broken right hand. Martin took a feed from James Neal and drilled a shot from the high slot past goaltender Ondrej Pavelec for his third goal of the season.

"I wanted that pretty bad," Martin said of his goal. "[Conditioning-wise, it] felt pretty good. As the game went on, I loosened up and started to feel a little better. Just to get back out there with the guys and play a game was a lot of fun."

Martin was partnered with Brooks Orpik and also played on the Penguins' second-ranked power play and fourth-ranked penalty kill. Martin's broken hand occurred in February at the 2014 Sochi Olympics while he was playing for the United States. Earlier in the season, he missed 23 games with a broken tibia.

"To be able to play that type of game after being out with an injury to his hand, I thought he was excellent," Bylsma said of Martin, who led all skaters with 23:46 of ice time. "Just the execution also on our power play was a noticeable for our group in that regard. He is out in all situations. It was clearly evident what getting him back in our lineup can do for our team."

Right wing Beau Bennett, who moved to the Penguins' top line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, also scored for the Penguins, as did Craig Adams and Brian Gibbons. Crosby chipped in two assists.

Olli Jokinen and Zach Redmond scored for the Jets.

Marc-Andre Fleury started for the Penguins and stopped 13 shots. Pavelec made his third consecutive start since returning from a lower-body injury and made 17 saves.

The Penguins grabbed a 1-0 lead 12:44 into the first period when Crosby looked off defenseman Adam Pardy and threaded a cross-slot pass to Bennett, who slammed the puck past Pavelec for his third goal of the season. Crosby, who leads the NHL with 102 points, extended his scoring streak to six games.

Jokinen's tied the game 2:52 into the second period when he shoved the rebound of Blake Wheeler's shot under Fleury for his 17th of the season. Wheeler has 11 assists in his past 13 games.

Redmond's first goal of the season provided the Jets' first lead of the game. A scramble to the right side of the Pittsburgh net left Fleury out of position after the puck reached Redmond at the top of the right circle, where he fired a shot into the wide-open side at 9:42. However, Adams tied it at 18:47 when he fired a one-timer through Pavelec's pads for his fifth goal of the season.

From there, the Penguins used Martin's goal, an insurance goal from Gibbons and a stifling defensive effort that limited Winnipeg to three third-period shots. The Jets finished the game with 15 shots, their second-lowest total this season.

"We didn't give up a lot, and I certainly liked that about our team," Bylsma said.

Having Martin back also helped an already-potent power play that struck once on three attempts.

"[Martin is] just really smart, and I think that kind of calming aspect brings a lot to the power play," Crosby said. "You can see his first game back, he looked pretty comfortable for a guy who hasn't played in a long time."

The win began a three-game road trip for the Penguins, who play the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. If the Penguins can sweep the road trip, they would tie the franchise season record with 24 road wins.

The Penguins have won division titles in two consecutive seasons twice in franchise history. They first did so in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. The division title will also give the Penguins home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the Playoffs.

"It's big," Martin said of the division title. "For us, it's a big accomplishment. It's a testament to the guys in the room here."

With the Metropolitan Division title officially in hand, the Penguins can continue refining their game for the postseason, a process that Bylsma said has been underway since early March. The power play had not scored in four games and was on a 1-for-15 slide before Thursday.

"I think there are areas we are working on as a team, and that's where we're at," Bylsma said. "I thought we took strides in several areas [Thursday] in that regard.

Winnipeg will have to wait at least another year for its first trip to the playoffs since 2007, when the organization was based in Atlanta. The Jets, who returned home for one game after a five-game road trip, visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

"We've got a week to do the autopsy," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "Let's do it later."

The Jets were 19-23-5 when Maurice replaced Claude Noel on Jan. 12. They went 11-3-1 in their first 15 games after the coaching change to put themselves into the middle of the Western Conference race. However, injuries to rookie center Mark Scheifele, several defensemen and Pavelec sent the Jets on a 4-8-spiral run that doomed their season.

"The hole we put ourselves in at the beginning of the year, it's tough to climb back," Jokinen said. "But at the same time, we took huge steps ahead getting back in the [race] and making it exciting. We put ourselves in a position where we still had a chance, and that's something that the guys can proud of."

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