Pens down Carolina, clinch division title
RALEIGH, N.C. — Penguins general manager Ray Shero once said you “win Stanley Cups with Jordan Staal.”
Shero's team has aligned itself nicely to win another championship, and it took a step toward accomplishing that goal in Staal's new home.
The Penguins roared from behind in the third period Tuesday to defeat Carolina, 5-3, clinching the Atlantic Division title at PNC Arena. It marks the seventh division title in franchise history and the first since 2008. The Penguins have assured themselves of finishing no worse than second in the Eastern Conference, meaning they have home-ice advantage in at least the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Eight games remain for the Penguins to tinker with their new players and get a few of their stars healthy.
“I think it's quite an accomplishment to do this with eight games still remaining,” said newly acquired forward Jarome Iginla, whose forced turnover set up center Evgeni Malkin's game-winning goal. “But it's not the ultimate goal.”
Right wing Pascal Dupuis, who continued his splendid season by finishing the game off with an empty-net goal and adding two assists, went a step further.
“It doesn't mean anything,” he said.
Rather, getting the likes of Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray more acclimated to the Penguins' system is the biggest hurdle facing the Penguins before the playoffs begin.
Claiming the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference would be nice — Montreal's loss to Washington has given the Penguins a five-point cushion — but preparing for the postseason is clearly what most interests the Penguins during the remainder of April.
“Our main goal,” Dupuis said, “is to get these new guys to buy into the system. They have to know what it looks like.”
The final 10 minutes of regulation against Carolina is a fairly good example of what coach Dan Bylsma's system is supposed to look like.
Trailing 3-2, the Penguins started swarming goaltender Justin Peters.
Rookie Beau Bennett evened the game by bullying to the goal and seeing his shot deflect off defenseman Jamie McBain and into the net. Only 13 seconds later, Iginla picked off a pass and set up Malkin for the game-winner.
Malkin has only two points in four games with captain Sidney Crosby out of the lineup.
“I think that was a big one for him,” Iginla said.
Morrow's first goal with the Penguins was a big one, too. Morrow danced around defenseman Justin Faulk before launching a puck past Peters in the first period.
“He was our best player in the first period,” said Bylsma, who has been delighted with Morrow's punishing style.
There hasn't been much about the first 40 games Bylsma hasn't enjoyed. His Penguins (30-10-0) have won 17 of their past 19 games and are 14-5-0 on the road.
Even though the locker room was hardly jovial — the demeanor was no different than following any other regular-season victory — there was a feeling of pride.
“I think it shows just how consistent this team has been all season that we were able to clinch this early,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 25 of 28 shots for his league-leading 20th win.
Now it's time for the Penguins to get even better. And healthier.
“This feels good,” Morrow said. “But we're going to put pressure on ourselves. We want to keep up the good habits and finish strong. It's a gut-check for us.”
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