Pittsburgh Penguins' Kris Letang (58) celebrates with Brenden Morrow (10) and other teammates after scoring a goal against Florida in the first period.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Penguins general manager Ray Shero has constructed a pretty impressive lineup for the stretch drive and playoffs.
So much so that having injuries take it apart, piece-by-piece, doesn't seem to have much of effect on how the team performs, as evidenced by its 3-1 victory against Florida Saturday night at BB&T Center.
First, Paul Martin went out with a fractured hand.
The Penguins kept winning.
Then, Kris Letang left with a broken toe.
After that, Sidney Crosby got a fractured jaw.
Following a two-game hiccup, the winning resumed.
At which point James Neal got a concussion.
And when it was decided that Evgeni Malkin should sit out the Panthers game, that didn't have any impact on the outcome, either.
Malkin, one of numerous team members who got varying degrees of sunburn during a team-building exercise Friday, is believed to be nursing a minor shoulder injury, as well. The official explanation for his absence was that he has an "upper-body injury."
Coach Dan Bylsma said after the game that Malkin had aggravated a nagging injury and that he is listed as day-to-day.
One team official said Malkin would have dressed had it had been a playoff game and that he should be in the lineup Wednesday night when Montreal visits Consol Energy Center.
A Penguins victory in that one could all but eliminate any chance the Canadiens have of overtaking them for first place in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins win against the Panthers, coupled with losses by Montreal and Boston, shaved their magic number for clinching the top seed in the East to eight against the Canadiens and seven against the Bruins. The Penguins have won four games in a row while raising their record to 32-10.
All without having their lineup of choice intact for weeks.
If this team is a house of cards, those cards apparently are made of reinforced concrete, because removing one after another hasn't been enough to make it collapse.
"That hasn't been our plan, but we're finding ways," said winger Brenden Morrow, who scored the Penguins' second and third goals.
"Each game, somebody is stepping up."
The Penguins took the first step toward their latest victory at 14:49 of the opening period, when defenseman Kris Letang's slap shot from the left point sailed through traffic and past Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom.
Beau Bennett and Morrow received assists on the goal, Letang's fourth this season. Morrow made it 2-0 at 18:27 when he took a feed from Bennett and banked a shot from the right side of the crease off Markstrom and into the net for his eighth goal.
"Luckily, [the pass] got through," Bennett said. "And he finished."
Bennett's set-up on the winning goal gave him his first multiple-point game in the NHL. The Penguins seemed well in control at that point, but the Panthers -- whose point total for the season is precisely half that of the Penguins -- didn't let up.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game," defenseman Mark Eaton said.
"It doesn't matter what the start is.
"A lot of times when teams are out of it and they're just playing for jobs and playing loose, those can be tough teams to play against."
Panthers winger Scottie Upshall scored the only goal of the second period, jamming a shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury during a scramble around the crease at 4:10.
Florida was unable to score again, however, and Morrow sealed the outcome by scoring into an empty net with 20.5 seconds left while Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson was in the penalty box for boarding Matt Cooke.
Cooke said later that he was not injured by that hit from behind and reiterated the importance of continuing to win despite having a diluted lineup.
"It's an important time for our team," he said.
"We want to continue to play the way we know makes us successful. And tonight, we were able to do that."