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Sidney Crosby key in Penguins playoff berth

Evgeni Malkin, Justin Schultz, organizational depth also big part of Pittsburgh clinching 11th straight trip to postseason

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The Pittsburgh Penguins are one step closer to becoming the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.

The Penguins clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 11th straight season with a 3-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.

Pittsburgh is in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points, one point behind the Washington Capitals and one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets with 10 games remaining.

The Penguins went 9-2-2 to start the season, including 3-2-1 without center Sidney Crosby, who missed the first six games because of a concussion. A 13-1-2 stretch from Dec. 1-Jan. 8 gave the Penguins the cushion they needed before losing five of nine (4-5-0) going into the All-Star break.

They are 16-4-4 since the break.

Here are five reasons the Penguins clinched:


1. Crosby's continued dominance

Crosby is in the running for the Art Ross Trophy and the Rocket Richard Trophy, and he should be a leading candidate for the Hart Trophy too. In 66 games he has an NHL-best 41 goals. He has 81 points, one less than Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, who leads the League with 82 in 72 games.


[RELATED: Mailbag: Sidney Crosby favorite to win scoring race]


Crosby scored four goals in his first three games and eight in his first six. He had 60 points (30 goals, 30 assists) in 46 games before he went back-to-back games without a point (Feb. 9-11) for the first time this season. He's been shut out in back-to-back games one time since (Feb. 28-March 1).

Crosby has at least one point in 48 of his 66 games. He has at least two points in 23 games. He is averaging a League-high 1.23 points per game.

Video: FLA@PIT: Crosby beats Reimer for the third time


2. Don't forget about Malkin

As good as Crosby has been, Evgeni Malkin has been right there with him for most of the season. Despite missing the past three games because of an upper-body injury, Malkin has 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists) in 62 games.

Malkin is second behind Crosby in points per game (1.16) among players who have played at least 20 games. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos is averaging 1.18 points per game but has played 17 games.

Crosby and Malkin have combined for 74 goals this season, the most since they combined for 79 in 2009-10, when Crosby had 51 and Malkin 28.

Video: PIT@CGY: Malkin finishes off give-and-go for PPG


3. Organizational depth

The Penguins are up to 215 man-games lost to injury, including 31 by defenseman Kris Letang. They are 21-7-3 without Letang, an example of how contributions from unlikely sources have kept them in the Metropolitan race.

Five players who were with Wilkes/Barre-Scranton in the American Hockey League at the start of the season currently are on the Penguins roster. Forwards Jake Guentzel, Carter Rowney and Oskar Sundqvist and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel played against the Sabres. Defenseman Cameron Gaunce was scratched.

Guentzel, who, according to coach Mike Sullivan, sustained a concussion against the Sabres, has been a regular in the lineup since Jan. 16, scoring 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 35 games, skating on the top line with Crosby and Conor Sheary.

"They've been a dynamic line for us," Sullivan said.

Ruhwedel has played 16 straight games, including 20 or more minutes in four of the past five. He played a season-high 22:49 at Buffalo on Tuesday. He's one of 14 defensemen the Penguins have used this season.

In addition, forward Scott Wilson, who was injured during the playoff run last season, has 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 69 games playing in a bottom-six role.


4. Schultz's emergence

Defenseman Justin Schultz has been Pittsburgh's most consistent and reliable defenseman this season. He's eased the blow of losing Letang for long stretches this season.

Schultz has 48 points (12 goals, 36 assists) in 69 games to lead all Penguins defensemen. He is averaging 20:01 of ice time per game, but has played more than 21 minutes in nine straight games and in 12 of the past 13, including exceeding 25 minutes three times.

"Winning the Stanley Cup, I mean, that gives you confidence right there," Schultz said. "With this group of guys, obviously I love being here. It's a fun place to play. I had a good summer training even though it was short. I came in with the attitude to help this team any way I could."

Video: PIT@WPG: Schultz rips a slapper top-shelf for PPG


5. Goalies making it work

Goaltenders Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury would each like to play more and maybe they will next season if Fleury is with another team. For now they are making the two-goalie system work.

Murray, 3-0-1 with a shutout in his past four games, has established himself as the Penguins' No. 1 goalie and is proving his run in the playoffs last season was no fluke.

Murray is 28-9-3 with four shutouts, a .924 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average in 43 games. Fleury is 18-8-6 with one shutout, a .911 save percentage and 2.94 GAA in 35 games.

"They're just good people," Sullivan said. "They make the most of not an easy situation from their standpoint, but certainly it's one I think a lot of teams are envious of because we have two high-quality goaltenders like we do."

Video: PIT@BUF: Murray shuts the door on Moulson's wrister

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