The Penguins got an “X” by their name in the standings on Sunday despite being idle, with Buffalo’s win over New Jersey enough to secure them a playoff berth.
Pittsburgh had to work a little harder to clinch the Atlantic Division, but got a 5-3 win over Carolina on Tuesday at PNC Arena to put the “Y” next to their name in the standings. This is Pittsburgh’s first division title since 2008, and the Penguins are now guaranteed to finish with either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s something as a team where I think that’s always one of your goals,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We’ve always had good teams, we just haven’t been able to win it with our division being so tough. So I think it’s definitely a good thing for us, especially in the shortened season. It’s been a grind here; we still have a ways to go. So I think we want to keep going. I don’t think we want to let our foot off the gas pedal here. We want to finish strong and carry that into the playoffs.”
Two goals in 13 seconds from Beau Bennett (game-tying) and Evgeni Malkin (game-winning) put Pittsburgh up 4-3 over Carolina halfway through the third period. Pascal Dupuis sealed the win with an empty-netter just 1.9 seconds before the horn sounded. Brenden Morrow and Robert Bortuzzo also scored for the Penguins, while Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves.
Carolina had lost 12 of their last 13 games entering Tuesday, and despite playing just 24 hours earlier in Boston, a Hurricanes team desperate to stop the bleeding battled the Penguins hard and even built a 3-2 lead early in the third.
But all it took was a 13-second span halfway through the period to stick a needle Carolina's balloon and utterly deflate the Hurricanes.
“I really liked it,” Orpik said of the team’s response. “For some reason they always give us trouble, especially in this building. I think they’ve only won one game of their last (13) games, but you see how hard they played. They’re tough to play against no matter what their record is. So I just thought the response after they scored was really good. Sometimes when things aren’t going your way you get a little deflated. It wasn’t that way on the bench at all. Just kind of stuck with it.”
Pittsburgh’s fourth line chipped in the tying goal, which started when Craig Adams barely kept a puck from crossing the blue line and holding the zone. He whipped a pass to Bennett, playing in his first game back since spending four games in the American Hockey League before getting recalled Sunday. Bennett cut to the net and threw a backhand at goalie Justin Peters, which appeared to rebound off a Hurricanes defenseman and in the net.
On the next shift, Malkin and Jarome Iginla sped down the ice off the faceoff and powered into the zone. The passing went like this: Iginla to Malkin back to Iginla. Iginla took a snap shot that rebounded right to Malkin at the side of the net, who reached out with one arm and pushed it into the net.
“We did it with four lines,” Morrow said. “Beau got us a big goal and then ‘Geno’ topped it off. It was just a full effort by the whole team. Those wins feel great.”
There’s a few factors in this win that must be mentioned, starting with the goaltender. Fleury had yet another big game between the pipes, weathering a few Hurricanes (get it?) as Carolina pressured mightily for stretches throughout the game and coming up with the needed saves.
Pittsburgh’s defensemen also produced vital shot blocks at key times. Brooks Orpik and Douglas Murray finished with four each, including several memorable ones, while Mark Eaton came up with a crucial one in the final seconds of the game before Dupuis’ empty-netter to keep Carolina from tying the game.
Finally, Dupuis had a heck of a game – finishing with a goal and two assists and starring on a line with Jussi Jokinen and Morrow. Adams also had a heck of a game. He refused to be outworked, bringing a physical presence with five hits, and made a couple of big plays that helped create both the Bennett and Morrow goals.
In our preview for tonight’s Penguins-Hurricanes matchup, we listed Morrow as Pittsburgh’s player to watch because he looked the most comfortable we’d seen him in black and gold in his last game, a 2-1 shootout win over the Rangers on Friday.
That night, Morrow did what he does best – be physical in the offensive zone, be tough on the forecheck and on the boards and just wreak havoc at the net. With the way he played, he seemed poised to break through for his elusive first goal as a
Penguin at any time – and he did in Carolina, his seventh game with Pittsburgh. But not only did he score against the Hurricanes – everything he did well on Saturday, he did even better on Tuesday.
Morrow combined with new Penguin and new linemate Jussi Jokinen for the goal in the first period. Jokinen sent a no-look, backhand pass to Morrow in the slot – who deked backhand-to-forehand around defenseman Justin Faulk and snapped a beautiful shot past Peters.
“Jussi made a good backhand play to me, kind of made one move – that’s all I got,” Morrow said with a laugh. “The guy fell down and I shot it. It found a hole.”
After scoring his goal, Morrow continued to swarm the blue paint and sacrifice his body to make plays in the dirty areas. With his last few games, Penguins fans are seeing just how valuable Morrow is, everything he brings to the ice and what a coup he was for this team. And he’s continuing to feel more comfortable every day.
“There’s little adjustments, especially structure-wise with all the plays they’re running,” Morrow said. “There’s some timing things I’m catching up with every day, but starting to get really comfortable here.”
With James Neal (concussion) and Sidney Crosby (broken jaw) injured, coach Dan Bylsma had to adjust his lines for this game. Chris Kunitz slotted into Neal’s spot on the left wing with Malkin and Iginla, while Morrow, Jokinen and Dupuis played together for the first time.
Despite having just practice Monday and morning skate today to get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with each other, those lines and the other two looked strong on Tuesday. Morrow, Jokinen and Dupuis seemed to know where the others were at all times on the ice, making a couple of sweet no-look passes. And with Kunitz having played left wing for a long time now and being familiar with Malkin from last season, he’s a natural fit on that line.
Malkin and Iginla have played together for a decent stretch of games now, and they’re beginning to look truly comfortable with each other – as evidenced by their partnership on the winning goal.
Iginla said after the game he’s making an effort to shoot more moving forward instead of deferring to his linemates.
“’Kuni’ and ‘G’ both talked to me and told me to shoot the puck,” Iginla laughed. “I passed up a pretty good one there, Kuni gave me another one and I probably should have shot that too.
“We do have to play off the shot. Trying to look for (those guys) but got to look to the net and get some shots, too.”
Author: Michelle Crechiolo