The Penguins are heading to the playoffs.
Not that it was ever in doubt as Pittsburgh makes a charge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference standings, but the team made it official by clinching a spot with a 5-1 win over the Nashville Predators at CONSOL Energy Center Thursday night.
The Penguins pulled to within one point of the NY Rangers for the East’s top spot, with both teams having played 73 games. The two teams will meet for the final time this season at CONSOL Energy Center April 5.
“I thought we played really well, came out hard,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I don’t think 5-1 is an indication of where the Nashville Predators played tonight. They had a lot of good things happen, making a lot of plays happen and they were tough to handle defensively. We felt that the whole game long.”
Pittsburgh’s 98 points are also only two behind St. Louis for the most in the NHL, putting it in a position to possibly win the league’s President’s Trophy.
“When you make your goals at the beginning of the year, that’s not one of them for our team,” Bylsma said. “Division is one, getting in the playoffs, putting yourself in a position to win the Stanley Cup and with the Stanley Cup. Our goal’s not being first in the league and points total. We’re going to keep trying to get first in our division. We’re one point behind right now and we play the Rangers again and that probably means we are going to be first in our division and first in our conference so that’s something we are shooting for.”
FLEURY HITS 40
Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
and Predators goalie Pekka Rinne entered the contest tied for the NHL lead in wins with 39 each. After Pittsburgh’s 5-1 win, Fleury sits alone atop the league standings with 40 victories.
The 40 victories ties Fleury’s personal career high (previously achieved 2006-07 season), and is only three wins shy of tying Tom Barrasso’s team record.
“I don’t feel different from before the game, just happy,” Fleury said. “I feel we reached it as a team. We just have to keep going now.”
Fleury turned aside 29 Nashville shots to reach No. 40. Despite the great personal achievement, Fleury passed the credit on to his teammates.
“It’s nice, especially with Pekka Rinne, he was at 39 too,” Fleury said. “I’m pretty happy to get it. I feel pretty fortunate to be playing on a good team like this. We have a great defense. I am lucky to be playing here in Pittsburgh with these guys. It’s just nice to reach that mark.”
Fleury is very deserving of reaching the career milestone, especially considering he has been the backbone of the team on almost every night. And while his work doesn’t get a lot of recognition on the national level, it hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Penguins’ dressing room.
“I think it’s happened to (Marc-Andre Fleury
) many times before,” Bylsma said. “It’s going to happen again this year where a lot of his accolades go unnoticed or he doesn’t get a lot of credit for what he does for our team. This year, much like last year, his play in net is a real reason of why we have 46 wins right now. He has 40 wins. He’s been outstanding. He has really buoyed our team, given it a confidence when we had injuries early on in the season.
“He’s been outstanding for our team. I don’t know why he’s not mentioned. I don’t know why he’s not given those accolades. It’s always been other areas and it’s going to be that way again this year. It’s not a mistake that he’s gotten to 40 wins before anybody else and I think there is a lot more to his goaltending than just us having a good team. He’s been really good back there and I think he should be.”
SECONDARY STEP UP
The Pens boast the No. 1 offense in the NHL despite having superstar captain Sidney Crosby
in the lineup for only 13 games. Part of the reason has been the team’s secondary scoring.
Two key contributors lately to the team’s secondary scoring are Pascal Dupuis
and Matt Cooke
, both of whom already have career highs in goals this season and each tallied one goal against the Predators.
“’Duper’ and I are good friends and trying to push each other,” Cooke said. “It seems like each time I score he scores or vice versa. It’s fun. It’s fun to go through and get some career highs with guys you love playing with.”
Dupuis re-directed a Kris Letang
shot from the point for his 22nd goal of the season. That score extends his career-high scoring streak to eight games (7G-3A).
Cooke scored off a 2-on-0 break with James Neal
. Cooke easily tapped the puck into a wide-open net following a slick pass from Neal. Cooke has seven points (5G-2A) over that five-game stretch.
Cooke now has 17 goals on the season, and five goals in his past five games. And he chuckled at the possibility of hitting 20.
“I don’t even think about it,” Cooke smiled. “I’m just try to go out and help my team win, that’s the most important thing to me.”
The Penguins lost defenseman Matt Niskanen
(upper-body, day-to-day) halfway through the second period. The team finished the game with only five defensemen. Brooks Orpik
led the charge with 23:55 minutes of ice time, followed closely by Kris Letang
with 23:50. Evgeni Malkin
continues to light up the league. He scored two goals against the Predators to hit 45 on the season. Malkin now has 95 points (45G-50A) on the season, giving him an 11-point cushion in the NHL scoring race. He also extended his current scoring streak to six games (7G-7A). James Neal
is known mostly as a deadly sniper, proven by his 35 goals this season. But he was the setup man against Nashville, notching a new single-game career high with four assists. Neal’s four points also tie his career high for a single game.
Author: Sam Kasan