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Notebook: Century Mark

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
SUNRISE, Fla. – The Penguins felt the pressure of the Tampa Bay Lightning breathing down their necks prior to facing the Florida Panthers Saturday night at BankAtlantic Center.

The Lightning defeated Minnesota in an afternoon contest and pulled within one point in the standings behind Pittsburgh for the No. 4 seed and home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Penguins, however, responded with a hard-fought 4-2 victory over the Panthers that not only extended their lead to three points, but Pittsburgh also hit the 100-point mark in the overall standings for the fourth time in the past five years, and for the second time in as many seasons under head coach Dan Bylsma.

“Getting 100 points and maintaining a three-point margin when it comes to home-ice was big for us,” Bylsma said. “A big game for us, a big win coming off of two losses as well. Now we’re going home.”

The Penguins have three games remaining in the regular season, while Tampa Bay has four contests left. With a three-point lead, the Penguins have the power to lock up the No. 4 seed.

“We control our own destiny,” forward Pascal Dupuis said. “We needed to win some games and this one was an important one. It’s a big two points.”

The Penguins will continue their quest to clinch the fourth seed and build some positive momentum as the postseason approaches.

“One hundred points is fantastic,” goaltender Brent Johnson said. “It’s a big two points. The 100-point mark is pretty good, but we want more. We want to be flying going into the playoffs.”

The Penguins were desperately trying to preserve a 3-2 lead in the third period. Things got dicey when a few penalties forced the team to play shorthanded.

The Penguins were whistled twice in the final 4:20 minutes of the third period, forced to kill off two penalties – including a four-on-three.

But the NHL’s No. 1 ranked penalty killing unit did what it does best. The Penguins stymied both Panthers power-play attempts and went on to score an empty-net goal as Kris Letang’s penalty expired with 1:30 remaining to cement the victory.

“There weren’t many penalties, but they had that four-on-three for over a minute,” said Zbynek Michalek, who netted the game-winning goal. “We didn’t give them much. The penalty kill has been our strength the whole season. That’s something that we take pride in. We want to keep playing well.”

“Huge penalty kill for us with three-and-a-half minutes left, four-on-three,” Bylsma said. “I thought our killers did a great job up ice. The entry in the zone can be easy for the opposition. Our PK did a great job shutting them down at the line, getting loose pucks and getting clears, not letting them get that zone time. A four-on-three could be very dangerous.”

In fact, the Penguins PK was so good that Florida rarely spent any time in the offensive zone.

“I think the way we killed the four-on-three, we didn’t let them set up in our zone,” Dupuis said. “We had a good forecheck, took the puck away from them a couple times and came back with it. We shut them down. We killed some big ones in the third.”

Brent Johnson saved his best for the third period. That’s when the Penguins were clinging to a 3-2 lead and the Panthers were pressuring fiercely. But Johnson turned aside all 12 third-period shots (28 in the game), including two big saves on point-blank shots from David Booth to preserve the victory.

“There were a couple crazy bounces that went right to their sticks,” Johnson said. “I guessed right on Booth the first time and just tried to stay with him the second time.”

“He battles whether he’s playing or not,” Bylsma said. “He kept fighting and fighting and fighting. That’s a guy that been there for his team. When we got the lead he had to come up strong in the third. It’s great to see him have that success. He’s a guy we know is going to battle for us.”

The Penguins watched a 1-0 lead evaporate into a 2-1 deficit in the first period as Florida scored twice in 22 seconds to steal the lead.

The Penguins were looking for a spark and they sure got one from the Chris Conner, Maxime Talbot, Dupuis line. The trio opened the second period with a strong shift that resulted in the game-tying goal just 45 seconds after the puck dropped in the middle frame.

Conner made a pass from behind the net to Talbot, who made a spinning cross-crease pass to Dupuis on the other side. Dupuis finished the job by burying his 14th goal of the year into a vacant net.

“I thought he was just going to wrap it, but he made a great pass,” Dupuis said. “You’re around the net and expect the puck. Max made a great play.”

“I think they’re still trying to decide whether Max meant to pass or shoot it on that play,” Bylsma joked. “Regardless, we got a puck to the cage and picked up a huge goal at the beginning of the second.

“I am a believer that he did try to pass it. He spun there and it looks like he’s trying to make the play. I know Dupuis will take it either way.”

The three players combined for 11 shots and three points in the game, and helped inspire their teammates to get to their game.

“They set the tone for our team, the pace and how we want to play,” Bylsma said. “I thought they were our best line in Tampa Bay as well. After losing the lead in the first period we needed to come out strong. They set the tone, getting on the puck, hunting loose pucks, finding pucks. That set the tone, settled our team down and they played real strong from there from that point on.”

Tyler Kennedy is already having a career year with new highs in goals, assists and points. He hit another major milestone against the Panthers by netting his 20th goal of the season in the first period.

“It feels great. I really wanted to hit it this year and I’m excited for something,” Kennedy said. “I was just trying to get a quick release off.”

Kennedy’s goal was a double milestone. Linemate Jordan Staal assisted on the play for his 100th career NHL helper. But Kennedy was quite blunt about who would get the souvenir puck.

“I’m definitely keeping the puck,” he said. “He’ll have to fight me for it.”
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