MONTREAL – The Pittsburgh Penguins had a little more to play for than the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the regular season and it showed on the ice.
Maxime Talbot and Kristopher Letang scored shorthanded goals 55 seconds apart in the third period to lead the Penguins to a 3-1 victory over a Canadiens team that seemed to sleep through the first 40 minutes in the season finales for both NHL clubs on Saturday night.
Penguins centre Evgeny Malkin scored in the first period to clinch his first Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion with 113 points – three more than his Russian rival Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who won the Art Ross last season with 112 points.
The win, combined with Carolina’s loss earlier Saturday, moved Pittsburgh (45-28-9) into fifth place in the Eastern Conference and a meeting with Pennsylvania rival Philadelphia in the opening round of the post-season.
All that remains to be settled is which team will have home ice advantage. The Penguins can move past the Flyers into fourth spot if Philadelphia loses Sunday against the New York Rangers.
“We probably never thought we’d have a chance to get home ice and now we’ve given ourselves that chance,” said Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby. “We’ve got to scoreboard-watch.
“If we get it, great, and if not, we’re familiar with our opponent and we’ll go from there.”
The Canadiens (41-30-11) finished eighth and will play first-place Boston in the first round of playoffs, with Game One tentatively set for Thursday night.
Montreal is 24-7 all-time in playoff series against the Bruins. The roles are reversed from a year ago, when Montreal finished first in the conference but needed seven tough games to beat the eighth-place Bruins in the opening round.
“There won’t be as much pressure on us this year – we’re going in as the underdog and hopefully we can surprise some people,” said Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who ended the season with a 38-save effort in a losing cause.
“I wish our team played better,” said Canadiens coach Bob Gainey, whose club ended the season on a 0-3-1 skid. “We didn’t have enough emotion early.
“Carey Price was outstanding. Our last week wasn’t really good – one out of eight points. Now we have four days before we start the playoffs and we can put all our attention onto one team. It will be a good break for us to practice.”
The score was tied 1-1 when Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik was sent off for cross-checking Montreal enforcer Georges Laraque.
Alex Kovalev made an errant pass to the point that a diving Mathieu Schneider could not keep in, sending Dupuis and Talbot in alone for the go-ahead goal at 9:46.
During the same Pittsburgh penalty kill, Letang skated down the left wing and beat Price with an off-wing blast at 10:41.
Until then, Price kept Montreal in a game in which the home side showed little energy even though they still had a chance to catch the Rangers for seventh place in the conference. The Pens outshot Montreal 41-30 overall.
The Canadiens looked disinterested from the opening minutes and Malkin took advantage when he slipped the rebound of Sergei Gonchar’s point shot under Price only 1:09 into the game.
But despite a 17-6 Pittsburgh shot advantage in the period, Roman Hamrlik tied it at 17:29 when his shot from the left point found its way past Marc-Andre Fleury, although it appeared to have been tipped by Maxim Lapierre.
The Penguins had a shorthanded goal disallowed at 15:34 because Talbot batted Dupuis’ rebound in with a clearly high stick.
Shots were 17-7 for Pittsburgh in the second, but Price stood his ground, coming across the crease to snare a blast from close range by Matt Cooke and following a minute later with another gem of a save on Bill Guerin.
The Canadiens turned the tables in the third, outshooting Pittsburgh 17-7, but couldn’t beat Fleury.
The Penguins were accused last season of not trying to win their season finale in order to avoid the Flyers, who had beaten them in all three previous playoff meetings. Pittsburgh ended that run when the teams met in the conference final, besting the Flyers in five games before losing to Detroit in the Stanley Cup final.
Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal left the game briefly from treatment in the first period when a puck went off Tomas Plekanec’s stick into the Penguins’ bench, catching Staal near the left eye.
Notes: Montreal elected to sit out forward Alex Tanguay and scrambled the lines, placing captain Saku Koivu with tough guys Laraque and Greg Stewart and Kovalev with Glen Metropolit and Chris Higgins. . . Ryan O’Byrne and Patrice Brisebois also sat out, while Andrei Markov and Sergei Kostitsyn are injured. It was surprising to see Schneider in the lineup as he is believed to be playing through a shoulder injury. . . . Pittsburgh defenceman Mark Eaton was banged up and didn’t play, bringing Philippe Boucher into the line-up. Craig Adams and Miroslav Satan were scratched.