Despite losing captain Sidney Crosby
and No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
for roughly one-third of the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins
are the Atlantic Division champions.
Just two years after having the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the second-worst in the National Hockey League, the Pens claimed their first division crowd in a decade on Wednesday night with a 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers at Mellon Arena.
''We ended up losing Crosby (for 28 games) and Marc-Andre Fleury (for three months) and so many other guys during the course of the season, and we were just trying to focus and maintain our position to make the playoffs,'' Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said. ''The guys surprised me with their commitment.''
All four of Pittsburgh’s tallies came via the power play, two of which were scored by Crosby. The captain erased a 2-1 deficit 6:26 into the second period and rounded out the scoring with 1:34 left in the third period.
The victory put Pittsburgh back atop the Eastern Conference with 102 points, while the idle Montreal Canadiens have 100. The Canadiens have two games remaining -- at home Thursday against Buffalo, and Saturday against Toronto. Pittsburgh ends the regular season Sunday at Philadelphia.
The Flyers are now in sole possession of eighth place in the East with 91 points, as the Boston Bruins moved one point ahead with Wednesday’s shootout loss at New Jersey. Philadelphia hosts the Devils on Friday night.
''We knew going in it was going to be an emotional game, an intense game with them needing to play desperate hockey and us wanting to play well here down the stretch, with the division in mind,'' Crosby said. ''For me personally, that's probably the most intense game we've played since I got back here the second time.''
Philadelphia held a 2-1 lead after the first period, as Scott Hartnell and Jeff Carter solved Fleury, while Sergei Gonchar scored Pittsburgh’s first power play goal of the night 10:24 into the game. Fleury, however, would stop the next 27 shots he faced.
After Crosby tied the game early in the second period, Evgeni Malkin gave the Pens their first lead of the night with 5:27 left. With Jim Dowd in the box for hooking, Malkin was about to go off on a line change when a collision between Ryan Whitney and two Flyers allowed the puck to spring loose. Malkin collected it near the top of the left circle and ripped a shot past Martin Biron to make it 3-2. It was Malkin’s 47th goal of the season. He is four points behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin in the NHL scoring race, 110-106.
''It's huge,” Whitney said of the victory. “To win at home and win the division against a rival, I'll bet everyone in here will say it's our best win of the season, and Sunday could even top that. ''It's exciting in here right now.''
Special teams was a problem for the Flyers all night long. On top of allowing four power play goals, Philadelphia went just 1-for-5 with the man advantage.
''With the personnel they have on their power play, it's pretty hard to shut them down,'' Hartnell said. ''This is as close as it's going to get to a playoff atmosphere.''
The Flyers entered Wednesday’s action needing four points in their final three games to assure themselves of making the playoffs. They fell into eighth place in the conference, a point behind Boston and only one ahead of Washington.
''We still hold our fate in our hands. If we win our next two we're in,'' forward Mike Richards said. ''Two games at home is a good position to be in. This was like a playoff game, and in playoff games, specialty teams are the difference.''
Material from wire services was used in this report.