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Penguins get past Panthers without Malkin, Crosby

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Even without their two superstars, the Pittsburgh Penguins continued their march Saturday toward clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Kris Letang and Brenden Morrow scored to give the Penguins a 2-0 first-period lead, and they held on for a 3-1 victory against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center. Morrow added an empty-net goal with 20.5 seconds left.

Evgeni Malkin joined Sidney Crosby on the sidelines Saturday when he was a late scratch with an upper-body injury. The Penguins had been 14-4 without either Malkin or Crosby, but this was the first time this season both were missing. Pittsburgh also was playing without defenseman Paul Martin (hand) and left wing James Neal (concussion).

"It hasn't been our plan, but we're finding ways," Morrow said. "Each game somebody is stepping up and it's feeling really good."

The victory increased Pittsburgh's lead atop the Eastern Conference to seven points over the Montreal Canadiens, who lost against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Boston Bruins, who missed a chance to pass Montreal when they lost against the Carolina Hurricanes, are eight points behind the Penguins.

According to STATS, Inc., the Penguins are 24-13-5 since 2008 when playing without both Crosby and Malkin.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin aggravated a previous injury and was day-to-day.

"That's always a disappointment for the 18,000 fans, you want to see those premier players," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "If you pay a lot of money to see the [Miami] Heat and you don't get to see LeBron [James] right now, that would have a little sting to it. I enjoy watching those good players play, but at the end of it, they've been down this road before where they're missing their quality players and they always have a response and that gets back to that team concept and they have that."

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 25 shots for Pittsburgh. He preserved the lead by stopping Tomas Fleischmann on a partial breakaway in the final minute before Morrow's empty-net goal.

Fleischmann's shot came almost from the same spot from where he beat Fleury for the game-winner in Florida's 6-4 victory against the Penguins at BB&T Center on Feb. 26.

"I kind of had that in the back of my mind a little bit," Fleury said. "I tried to make myself big and got enough of a piece and made a stop."

Rookie Beau Bennett, who moved up to a line with Morrow and Pascal Dupuis in Malkin's absence, had two assists for the first multi-point game of his NHL career.

"He's really poised with the puck for a young guy," Morrow said. "He makes some really good plays."

The Penguins have won four in a row since a two-game losing streak followed their 15-game winning streak in March. They are now 17-0 when leading after two periods.

The Penguins allowed four power-play goals in their loss at Florida on Feb. 26, but killed off all four Panthers' power plays Saturday. Two of those came in the final 10:15 of regulation.

It was a good bounce-back effort for the Penguins' penalty-killing unit, which gave up three power-play goals during a 6-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

"The penalty kill was exceptional coming back after last game giving up three power-play goals," Bylsma said. "They were put in some tough situations in the third period. Our penalty kill had to come up with a couple of big kills."

Scottie Upshall scored for the Panthers, who have the fewest points in the NHL with 32.

It was only the third goal of the season for Upshall, who had a lengthy 1-on-1 conversation with Dineen at the morning skate.

"Obviously, things haven't gone so well," Upshall said. "I'll be the first to admit it hasn't been a great year. As a group, we still have a long ways to go to get to where we need to be. Tonight, we had glimpses where we were good or great and sometimes we got caught kind of watching. Little things like that are what determines games."

Jacob Markstrom, making his eighth start in the past nine games, made 19 saves. He was pulled from his previous start after allowing six goals on 23 shots in a 7-2 loss against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.

Defenseman Mike Weaver returned to the Florida lineup after missing 20 games because of a lower-body injury.

The Panthers, however, lost fellow defenseman Filip Kuba to a lower-body injury in the third period. Dineen said there was a "little bit of a concern" about Kuba, who didn't play in the final 15:24 of the game.

Letang, who returned to action Thursday after missing the previous six games with a toe injury, opened the scoring at 14:49 when his slap shot from the blue line got through traffic and beat Markstrom to the stick side.

Morrow, acquired in a trade with the Dallas Stars on March 24, scored his second goal in a Penguins' uniform at 18:27 after a strong individual effort by Bennett.

Bennett skated around the Florida defense and behind the net before sending a pass across the crease to Morrow. The puck went behind the net when Morrow couldn't control the pass, but he banked it off Markstrom's backside.

"I was looking to see what was going to open up and he kind of slid in the backdoor," Bennett said. "Good play by him because he kind of waited and waited, and no one saw slip through the backdoor. Luckily, it got through and he finished."

Upshall made it 2-1 at 4:10 of the second when he backhanded his own rebound. The goal came less than 15 seconds after Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell hit the post with a wrist shot from the high slot.

"Even without their two superstars they still have a pretty solid lineup," Upshall said. "On Saturday night on home ice, you could have a little bit better effort and done some little things better. Overall, we gave them a good ride and played hard. I thought we battled."

The loss mathematically eliminated Florida from playoff contention. The Panthers, who won their first division title last season, can finish with no more than 46 points. The New York Rangers currently stand eighth in the Eastern Conference with 46 points and would win a tiebreaker with the Panthers because of a higher victory total -- New York has 21, while the Panthers currently have 13.

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