Penguins top Rangers, 2-1, in regular-season finale

It's not good enough for home-ice advantage in 1st round of playoffs

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The Penguins did not get the storybook ending they wanted for one of the most remarkable regular seasons in franchise history.

They had to settle for an exclamation point.

They defeated the New York Rangers, 2-1, at Mellon Arena last night to wrap up the second-best regular season in their four decades in the NHL.

It was not enough, however, to secure home-ice advantage for their first-round playoff series against Ottawa; the Senators clinched that with a 6-3 victory in Boston.

"We would have liked to have had home ice, but we were in a situation where we took care of what we had to do," left winger Gary Roberts said. "We know Ottawa's a good hockey team, and they obviously showed it."

Although the playoff schedule will not be finalized until the regular season ends today, the Penguins are expected to play in Ottawa Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, with the series shifting to Mellon Arena for Game 3 next Sunday.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby, 19, became the youngest scoring champion in NHL history. He assisted on both goals to finish with 120 points, six more than the runner-up, San Jose center Joe Thornton.

"It's a nice accomplishment," Crosby said. "I didn't come into this season expecting it. I just tried to have the best season possible, and was lucky enough to get it."

The Penguins (47-24-11) completed the season with 105 points, a total surpassed in team annals only by the 119 they earned in 1992-93. It is an improvement of 47 over the 58 they got last season, the fourth-largest one-year increase in NHL history.

"The goal was just to get into the playoffs, then all of a sudden we were fighting for home ice the whole second half," defenseman Ryan Whitney said.

The Penguins apparently will enter the playoffs quite healthy. Defenseman Eric Cairns, who logged just 42 seconds of ice time this season because of post-concussion syndrome, is believed to be the only player with a significant medical issue, although Whitney has a sore groin and most players have the kind of nagging problems that accumulate over an 82-game season.

Center Evgeni Malkin wrapped up the rookie scoring championship with 85 points, despite being shut out in the final three games.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 28 of 29 New York shots, finished with 40 victories, second in the Penguins' history only to the 43 Tom Barrasso had in 1992-93.

One of the few disappointments for the Penguins -- aside from having Ottawa lock up home ice -- was that rookie center Jordan Staal was held without a goal for the seventh consecutive game.

That means he finished with 29 -- a stunning total for an 18-year-old who entered training camp as a long shot to claim a place on the NHL roster -- and the Penguins missed out on a chance to become the first team in league history to have three 30-goal scorers under the age of 21.

Crosby got 36, while Malkin, 20, had 33.

The game attracted a standing-room crowd of 17,132, the Penguins' 30th sellout of the season -- four shy of the franchise record set in 1988-89 and matched the following season -- and 23rd in the final 25 home dates. Their total attendance was 673,422, an average of 16,425.

Roberts gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal 53 seconds into the second period. He was jostling with Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival in front of the net and collected a Crosby rebound in front before shanking a shot that went between the legs of New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

The goal was Roberts' 20th, while Sergei Gonchar's assist was his 67th point, tying his career-best.

The power play struck again at 15:54, when Mark Recchi scored his 24th.

Crosby had the puck behind the New York goal line and slid a pass to Recchi, who beat Lundqvist from the inner edge of the left circle for what proved to be the game-winner.

Although the Penguins sagged visibly when it became obvious that Ottawa would wrap up home ice -- "We saw them go up, 6-3, and maybe there was a bit of a letdown," Roberts said -- the goal Petr Prucha scored on a rebound at 1:50 of the third was the only one the Rangers got.

And now the Penguins embark on a playoff run many thought they wouldn't be making for another year or so. How long it will last isn't clear, of course; that they have the potential to make a major impact is.

"This is a team you don't want to play against," coach Michel Therrien said. "It could surprise. It has surprised a lot of people. And we might surprise a lot of people again in the playoffs."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save on New York's Petr Prucha in the second period last night en route to his 40th win of the season.
Click photo for larger image.
Next: The Playoffs

Series: Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators in a best-of-seven first-round series.

Game 1: Wednesday or Thursday.

Where: Scotiabank Place, Ottawa.

Season series: Penguins won, 3-1.

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby is checked into the boards by the Rangers' Thomas Pock in the third period last night.
Click photo for larger image.

Dave Molinari can be reached at .


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