PITTSBURGH – During a season in which numerous injuries to key players gave the Pittsburgh Penguins every reason to lose, they wound up as division champions. They might not be done yet, either, with the Eastern Conference title theirs to win, too.
Sidney Crosby scored twice and Evgeni Malkin added the go-ahead goal for the Penguins, who clinched their first division title in 10 years with a 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night.
The Penguins secured the Atlantic Division title only two years after they had the Eastern Conference’s worst record and the NHL’s second-worst mark. They also overtook idle Montreal for the East lead by two points. The Canadiens have two games remaining, at home Thursday against Buffalo, and Saturday against Toronto. Pittsburgh ends the regular season Sunday at Philadelphia.
“We ended up losing Crosby (for 28 games) and Marc-Andre Fleury (for three months) and so many other guys during the course of the season, and we were just trying to focus and maintain our position to make the playoffs,” coach Michel Therrien said. “The guys surprised me with their commitment.”
Pittsburgh hadn’t won a division title since taking the Northeast in 1997-98, the season after Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux retired for the first time. The Penguins have 102 points to 97 for division rival New Jersey, which beat Boston 3-2 in a shootout but can finish with no more than 101 points.
“It’s huge. To win at home and win the division against a rival, I’ll bet everyone in here will say it’s our best win of the season, and Sunday could even top that,” defenceman Ryan Whitney said. “It’s exciting in here right now.”
The Penguins, winning their eighth in a row at home to assure themselves of no worse than the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs, trailed 2-1 after the first before turning to their two stars for the game’s two biggest goals.
All four Penguins goals came on the power play as they went 4-for-6 to Philadelphia’s 1-for-5.
Only 19 seconds after Crosby drew a charging penalty from Scott Hartnell that put the Flyers down two men, Crosby took Sergei Gonchar’s pass and beat goalie Martin Biron with a one-timer from a bad angle along the edge of the right circle. It was Crosby’s first goal in four games since returning from a seven-game layoff due to a sprained ankle and his first at home since Jan. 3. He added the 24th of his injury-interrupted season late in the third.
“We knew going in it was going to be an emotional game, an intense game with them needing to play desperate hockey and us wanting to play well here down the stretch, with the division in mind,” Crosby said. “For me personally, that’s probably the most intense game we’ve played since I got back here the second time.”
Gonchar scored Pittsburgh’s first goal midway through the first and had two assists.
Malkin, chosen as the Penguins’ MVP by the team, made it 3-2 later in the period when the Flyers apparently thought he was going to the bench after being on the ice for 1 1/2 minutes of a power play.
Instead, Malkin swooped in after two Flyers collided with Pittsburgh’s Ryan Whitney near the top of the left circle, grabbed the puck and beat Biron with a hard wrist shot for his 47th goal, making it 3-2.
Crosby scored again by redirecting Sergei Gonchar’s pass from the right point with 1:34 remaining.
“With the personnel they have on their power play, it’s pretty hard to shut them down,” Hartnell said. “This is as close as it’s going to get to a playoff atmosphere.”
It was a potentially costly loss for the Flyers, who began the night needing four points in their final three games to assure themselves of making the playoffs. They fell into eighth place in the conference, a point behind Boston and only one ahead of Washington, with home games remaining Friday against New Jersey and Sunday.
“We still hold our fate in our hands. If we win our next two we’re in,” forward Mike Richards said. “Two games at home is a good position to be in. … This was like a playoff game, and in playoff games, specialty teams are the difference.”
In a physical game filled with pushing and shoving and plenty of sticks to the midsection, there were two fights and three other skirmishes in the first period. The Flyers took a 2-1 lead on goals in that period by Hartnell and Jeff Carter, but Fleury allowed no others on the next 27 shots he faced.
“We didn’t want the emotions to get too carried away,” Penguins forward Ryan Malone said. “We all want to run around and put everyone through the boards, but you want to stay out of the box. I’m sure they’d like to have some of their penalties back. … I thought we played smart hockey.”
Notes: Philadelphia had been 5-0-1 since a 7-1 loss in Pittsburgh on March 16. … The Penguins sold out all 41 home games for the first time in the franchise’s 41-year history. … Malkin is four points behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in the scoring race, 110-106. … The Flyers won the first four games of the season series by a combined score of 20-8, but the Penguins have won the last three by 15-6.