RALEIGH, N.C. – The Pittsburgh Penguins work pretty fast these days—when they are turning a deficit into a lead, and when they are wrapping up a division.
Beau Bennett and Evgeni Malkin scored 13 seconds apart in the third period, and the Penguins clinched the Atlantic Division title by beating the free-falling Carolina Hurricanes 5-3 on Tuesday night.
Brenden Morrow scored his first goal with Pittsburgh, the first team in the NHL to claim a division crown in this shortened season.
“It’s been a priority for us to look at being tops in the division for the seeding in the playoffs,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “To be able to do that with eight games left in the season, I think that’s a pretty big accomplishment for this team.”
Robert Bortuzzo added a goal, and Pascal Dupuis had an empty-netter and two assists. Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves for the Penguins, the division winner for the first time since 2008.
They were without a handful of regulars—including captain Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Kris Letang—but still had plenty of timely firepower to hand Carolina its club-record eighth straight home loss.
“I just thought the response after the score was really good,” Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going your way, you get a bit deflated. It wasn’t that way on the bench at all.”
Joe Corvo and Bobby Sanguinetti scored early goals for the Hurricanes, and Riley Nash put them up 3-2 exactly 2 minutes into the third.
“Any time you get the lead in the third, you want to clamp down and really do the little things right,” Nash said. “It just didn’t seem like we did that. It’s another learning experience.”
Bennett tied it with 10:11 left by slipping a backhand past Justin Peters, and Malkin scored with 9:58 left by poking the rebound of Jarome Iginla’s shot past Peters.
“I had a good-look shot. It was sitting there and with (Malkin’s) long reaching on the net, it was good to see him poke that one in,” Iginla said.
Dupuis scored into an empty net with 1.9 seconds left.
Peters finished with 28 saves for Carolina, which lost its sixth straight and for the 13th time in 14 games.
These teams have gone in opposite directions since their last meeting—a 4-1 Carolina win at home over the listless-at-the-time Penguins on Feb. 28.
Pittsburgh responded by winning 17 of 19, including a 15-game winning streak that ended last week, to take control of the Eastern Conference.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, descended into one of the worst slumps in club history—one that has enveloped nearly one-third of the compressed 48-game schedule.
Since taking a 2-0, first-period lead against Washington on March 14—a game they went on to lose 3-2—the Hurricanes have been outscored 56-21. Carolina has gone from the top of the Southeast Division to near the bottom of the conference.
“It’s playoff mentality. (These are) all learning experiences right now. … We played hard with them. If anything, we said, ‘We can play with these guys.'” Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. “But you have to be mentally tough to play these games.
“Put all that effort in as much as you want, but if you make a couple mistakes, the games get tighter and more important, you’ll pay for it.”
At least some injured players began to trickle back into the lineup: defenceman Justin Faulk was activated from the injured list, and Alexander Semin returned after missing two games with an upper body injury. Muller said Faulk was closer to 100 per cent than Semin.
Two Carolina defencemen scored off first-period faceoffs, with Sanguinetti’s slap shot tying it at 2 with 4:27 left. Corvo struck first 4:06 in.
Bortuzzo tied it at 1 just 92 seconds after Corvo’s goal when he went backdoor and scored off a pretty cross-ice pass from Dupuis. Morrow briefly put the Penguins up 2-1 with 6:11 left with his first goal with the Penguins, coming on an impressive effort in the slot.
When Nash scored with 18 minutes left, backhanding a rebound high past Fleury, it was his first goal since he had two against Washington on March 12.
But Bennett and Malkin scored in bang-bang fashion to keep the Penguins surging and the Hurricanes reeling.
“They came out hard and strong. They’re an aggressive team and put a lot of pressure on you,” Bylsma said. “We had to respond, and did in the first but, especially, in the third.”
NOTES: Muller said Peters made a surprise start because G Dan Ellis, the scheduled starter, sustained an unspecified injury during warmups. LW Drayson Bowman was out because of an upper body injury and C Tim Brent was sidelined by a lower body injury. … The Penguins have now beaten every team in the East this season. … Carolina made room for Faulk by sending D Brett Bellemore to Charlotte of the AHL. … LW Jussi Jokinen, traded by the Hurricanes to Pittsburgh at the deadline, assisted on Morrow’s goal. Another former Carolina player, RW Craig Adams, had two assists.
Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at (at)JoedyAP.