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With or without stars, Penguins find ways to win

by Adam Kimelman /

Thanks to the Buffalo Sabres' shootout win against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to clinch a spot in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs from the comforts of their homes.

While the Sabres might have carried them the final step, there was a lot of hard work put in by the Penguins that earned them the right to call themselves a playoff team with nine games left in the regular season.

Here are five reasons the Penguins were the first team in the East to reserve their spot in the postseason.

1. Perseverance -- The Penguins have had their three best players, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, in the lineup at the same time only 19 times in 39 games this season. Since March 2, though, it's been just three times and that number could remain there for a while as Crosby recovers from a broken jaw.

But that March 2 game against the Montreal Canadiens also coincided with the start of the Penguins' 15-game win streak. Rather than wilt as the defending League scoring champion and MVP, the current scoring leader among defensemen and the League's leading scorer this season left the lineup, the Penguins continued to win. Eleven players scored the winning goal during their March streak, and in the 20 games one or more of their big three have been out of the lineup, the Penguins are 14-6-0.

The hope is Crosby, Malkin and Letang all get healthy and stay that way, but the players certainly have proven they can win with or without their superstars.

Sidney Crosby is one of many Penguins who have missed time due to injury, but the team has still managed to maintain an impressive level of play. (Getty Images)

2. Sidney Crosby -- Entering the 2012-13 season, many wondered just what kind of player Sidney Crosby could be. After most of two seasons lost to concussions and neck problems, would he be able to return to the dominant force he had been? Would he have to change his style at all to remain healthy?

Until getting hit in the face by a Brooks Orpik shot during a game March 30, Crosby had proven all the doubters wrong. Even while missing the past two games, Crosby's 56 points are seven more than the next-highest scorer in the League, Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. And Crosby is doing more for the Pens than just scoring -- his plus-26 is a career-best, and he's being used more often as a penalty killer.

"When I watch Sidney now, and I would never suggest that he's better because of [the injuries]," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told, "but the fact is that he's found a way to, in my view, not only use his experience, but use the time off to come back, I think, even better."

3. Beating the best -- The Penguins have played their best this season against the best competition.

Against the seven other teams in top eight in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins are a combined 19-3-0. That includes a 3-0 mark against the Washington Capitals, and 2-0 records against the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. They're 4-1 against the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, and 2-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. And of those 22 games, only eight have been wins by one goal.

4. Marc-Andre Fleury -- While Crosby, Malkin and others steal the spotlight, one of the most consistent Penguins continues to fly under the radar -- goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

All Fleury -- who already has backstopped the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cup Finals -- has done this season is rank fifth in the League with 19 wins while currently posting the best goals-against average (2.28) and second-best save percentage (.918) of his career.

While Tomas Vokoun has been solid as a backup this season, there might not be a more valuable player on the Penguins than Fleury.

5. Welcoming the new guys -- There was no more aggressive general manager leading up to the trade deadline than the Penguins' Ray Shero, who added forwards Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen, along with defenseman Douglas Murray, without taking a player off his roster.

None of the four has broken out yet -- a combined two goals and one assist -- but Morrow has played the most of the group, with six games. Murray has five games, Iginla four and Jokinen one. All are proven commodities who only will help the Penguins at some point either in the regular season or the playoffs.


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