Pens win first division title since 1998

| Thursday, April 3, 2008

Fittingly, the Penguins' Atlantic Division-clinching 4-2 victory Wednesday over the Philadelphia Flyers was powered by Evgeni Malkin.

After all, it's been his season -- especially since the Penguins were harassed and humbled by the Flyers in an 8-2 loss at Philadelphia on Dec. 11.

The Penguins have won 32-of-51 games since, thanks to Malkin's 36 goals and 70 points - including his team-leading 47th tally in a two-point performance last night.

"I don't see why not," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said of Malkin's MVP candidacy. "We all knew he could do it, but he's been doing it for three months -- and not just against these guys, but everybody."

Gonchar took a puck off his left foot last night, but postgame X-rays were negative.

Malkin has proven to be a significant positive for the Penguins.

He is within four points of Washington's Alexander Ovechkin in the NHL scoring race. Malkin has 106 points to Ovechkin's 110.

By winning a division title for the first time since 1998, the Penguins are assured of at least the Eastern Conference's second seed in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. At 47-26-8 with 102 points, they can claim the top seed with a win in Philadelphia on Sunday or a loss by Montreal in either of its final two games.

Home-ice advantage through at least three postseason rounds would please the Penguins, but not more than the apparent resuscitation last night of a struggling power-play attack.

They were 4 for 6 on the power play after going 5 for 39 in their previous nine games.

Captain Sidney Crosby was a catalyst. He scored two power-play goals - snapping a 28-game drought with the man advantage - and totaled three points with the extra man.

"We just had the right attitude," Crosby said. "With the skill we have out there, if we have the right attitude and a good work ethic, we're going to be successful."

Malkin and Crosby assisted on Gonchar's 12th goal at 10:24 of the first period to pull even, 1-1. Crosby's 23rd goal at 6:26 of the second period - a one-timer off a sharp cross-ice feed from Gonchar - erased the Flyers' 2-1 lead.

Crosby had not scored a goal in three games since returning for a second time from a high right ankle sprain. He has scored only four goals since Jan. 18, when he was sidelined for 28 of 31 due to his injury.

His noticeable enthusiasm last night was likely due to the game's significance and because it came against an opponent he admittedly loathes.

"It's been intense since I got here," Crosby said of the Penguins' rivalry against the Flyers. "You know it's going to be an emotional and tense game. That's probably the most intense game since I got back here the second time."

If the Flyers miss the playoffs - and this loss could ultimately result in that horror for Philadelphia coach John Stevens - they will wonder what went wrong after that dominating victory over the Penguins in mid-December.

Philadelphia is 24-19-7 since - a .480 winning percentage that has dropped the Flyers from atop the East to holding a tenuous one-point lead on idle Washington for the conference's eighth and final playoff spot.

Of course, the Flyers could choose to blame Malkin for their fall from grace. He has scored five goals and recorded 11 points while guiding the Penguins to a 3-1-0 mark against Philadelphia during the past three months.

Malkin tallied the winning-goal last night at 14:33 of the second period. Crosby added his 24th at 18:26 of the third.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury turned aside 27 shots. He is 10-1-1 with a .947 save percentage and 1.57 goals-against average since returning Feb. 28 from a lengthy absence due to a high right ankle sprain.

"The way he is playing right now - he's loose, he's having fun," forward Max Talbot said. "That's who Marc-Andre Fleury is. And right now, he's one of the best players in the NHL."

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