Shutout leads to 1st place

Sabourin returns, blanks Montreal

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MONTREAL -- OK, so losing Sidney Crosby didn't make the Penguins a first-place team.

But it didn't prevent them from becoming one last night, either.

The Penguins began their game against Montreal without Crosby, who is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain, and lost a few more players along the way, but still defeated the Canadiens, 2-0, at the Bell Centre.

The victory raised their record to 27-17-3 and allowed them to leapfrog New Jersey and take over the top spot in the Atlantic Division for the first time this season.

While the Penguins had no shortage of heroes, the biggest might have been the most unlikely: Goalie Dany Sabourin, who had not played since Dec. 21 but stopped 31 shots to record his second shutout.

"He played unbelievable for a guy who hadn't played in a month," right winger Georges Laraque said.

The victory was the Penguins' first without Crosby since he joined the team in 2005 -- they are 1-2-2 in such games -- and reinforced the idea they can compete with a quality opponent even when he isn't around.

Evgeni Malkin, speaking without the aid of a translator, offered that "the guys talked before the game about playing hard" to make that point, and coach Michel Therrien confirmed it.

"We discussed it, the adversity we faced before with some of our players being out, and the adversity we're going to face now with Sid being out," he said.

The adversity didn't end there, however, because the Penguins played most of the game without forwards Colby Armstrong and Adam Hall.

Armstrong was injured 10 seconds into the game, when Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik knocked him hard into the boards. He missed much of the first period and all of the second and third with a bruised hip.

Hall logged 5 minutes, 49 seconds of ice time in the first, but didn't get off the bench for the final two because of a sore groin. He said afterward he is not certain how severe the problem might be.

"Our bench was pretty [short]," Therrien said.

"It's getting frustrating right now, with the amount of players we don't have."

Understandably so, but that only added luster to what the Penguins accomplished against a team that had been one point ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.

"I'm so proud of this team," Laraque said.

"I think that if we would have gone to two lines, guys would have pushed it through and tried to make it happen because we wanted to prove to everybody that, 'Hey, we can still win. We want to do this.' "

About 10 minutes before the opening faceoff, the public-address announcer proclaimed that Ty Conklin would start in goal for the Penguins.

An easy mistake to make, considering Conklin had started the previous 11 games, but Sabourin quickly made sure everyone was aware he was in the game. And actively involved.

"The first couple of shots were huge for me after not playing for a month," he said. "It was really huge to challenge those guys, and that's what I did the first couple of shots, and I felt pretty good the rest of the way."

Jeff Taffe got the only goal the Penguins needed at 6:14 of the opening period, courtesy of some excellent work by Laraque.

He shook free behind the Canadiens' net and fed a backhander in front to Taffe, who threw it past goalie Cristobal Huet for his second.

"Georges doesn't get a lot of credit for the skill he possesses down low," Taffe said. "Everybody knows he's a big body, but he sees the ice really well, as well.

"He demands the puck down there and, when we give it to him, good things happen most of the time."

Sabourin made his finest save of the first period with 7:15 to go, when he denied Alex Kovalev from 10 feet in front and turned in the best of his 17 in the second when he rejected Sergei Kostitsyn from the inner edge of the right circle with just over two minutes to go.

He punctuated the victory by stopping Kovalev from the left circle with 84 seconds left in regulation, and Malkin put the final touches on a template the Penguins hope to follow while Crosby is out by hitting an empty net with 12.4 seconds to play.

"We have to think defense, because they aren't going to be high-scoring games," Laraque said.

"It's going to have to be a four-line effort.

"Everybody's going to have to chip in. Everybody's going to have to do something every game to help this team win, so we can hold on until Sid comes back."


Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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