PITTSBURGH – Evgeni Malkin skated off the ice with a nasty gash on his left cheek, a souvenir from a game that was better suited for May than for March. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are close to full strength for the first time in weeks, the playoffs already seem to have arrived.
Sidney Crosby set up goals by Marian Hossa and Malkin and the Penguins, on the verge of clinching their division, moved into first place in the Eastern Conference by beating the penalty-prone New York Rangers 3-1 on Sunday.
The Rangers, missing an opportunity to move into fifth place in the conference, controlled much of the play during the final two periods but couldn’t score in the final 56 minutes as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 26 of 27 shots.
The Penguins, closing out an unbeaten March at home and winning their 10th in 13 games, moved ahead of idle Montreal 99-98 in the conference race with three games remaining for each team. The Penguins need to win only once in their final three games to clinch their first division title in 10 years, and can do so as early as their rematch with the Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
“I can’t wait for about 10 days, to start this thing (the playoffs),” said Max Talbot, who scored in the final minute. “It’s good that it’s all (division) games like this until the end of the season. Every little play can change the game and that’s playoff hockey, and that’s what we’re in right now.”
One more victory gives the Penguins 101 points, a total that only one division rival, New Jersey, could match. However, the Devils can’t surpass the Penguins in victories – the first tiebreaker – unless Pittsburgh loses its final three and New Jersey wins its last four. The Penguins won the season series from New Jersey 4-3-1.
“We control our own destiny to win the conference,” Ryan Whitney said. “If we can win out, we finish first in the conference and that’s been our goal all year.”
Malkin, second in the league in scoring with 104 points, left briefly after being cut on the left cheek by Rangers centre Brandon Dubinsky’s skate with six minutes remaining in the second period, but returned for the third period.
“I saw that big cut, and that’s really scary – it’s really close to his eye,” Crosby said. “But he came back and got away with only some stitches.”
“He didn’t do it intentional,” Malkin said. “He said it was an accident and he was sorry about that.”
Pittsburgh was 1-for-8 on the power play, but Rangers coach Tom Renney said all those penalties were disruptive during only the third regulation loss in 21 games for his team. However, the Rangers have five overtime losses during that stretch.
“What we don’t want to do is have the power play suck the life out of you,” Renney said.
Dubinsky scored on a power-play goal set up by Jaromir Jagr with 3:03 gone. Hossa, finally playing a full game on Crosby’s line, tied it midway through the first with his 29th goal. Crosby used a spin move to create an opening along the goal-line to pass to Pascal Dupuis, who fed the puck to Hossa.
Hossa, acquired from Atlanta in a trading deadline deal to strengthen Crosby’s line, couldn’t get on the ice with Crosby for weeks due to Hossa’s knee injury and Crosby’s ankle sprain. Even when they finally played together Thursday against the Islanders, Hossa missed part of the game with a head and neck injury.
“Yeah, it’s been kind of tough,” Crosby said. “But we’re going to continue to get better, I think. The chemistry’s there, we’ve just got to make sure we take advantage of our chances.”
With Pittsburgh on a 5-on-3 power play, Malkin scored his 46th late in the first to make it 2-1 on a 40-foot slapshot off Sergei Gonchar’s pass. Malkin trails Washington’s Alex Ovechkin 109-104 in the scoring race.
“The story of the game to me was penalties,” the Rangers’ Brendan Shanahan said. “Half of our offensive forwards kill penalties, the other sit on the bench and get cold. Either way you have half the team tired, the other half cold.”
After that, the Penguins turned the game over to Fleury, who is 13-1 in his last 14 decisions despite sitting out nearly three months with a badly sprained ankle.
“Every puck seems to be hitting him,” Whitney said. “He’s really carrying us right now.”
There was a slight possibility this was the 421st and last game in Pittsburgh for the 36-year-old Jagr, who won the Stanley Cup during his first two NHL seasons with the Penguins in 1990-91 and 1991-92. While Jagr is all but certain to become a free agent, he has downplayed reports he might not play in the NHL next season if it’s not with the Rangers or that he might return to Russia, where he played during the NHL lockout season in 2004-05.
Notes: The Penguins are 7-0 at home this month. … Pittsburgh’s final two games are against Philadelphia. … Malkin has four goals in his last two home games against the Rangers. … Pittsburgh is 9-0-2 at home since Feb. 13.