Penguins win, clinch playoff spot

Ryan Whitney scores twice, Sidney Crosby gets goal and an assist as Penguins sweep season series from Capitals, remain tied with New Jersey and tie Ottawa

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Mitchell Layton, Getty Images
The Penguins celebrate their fourth goal against the Capitals last night in Washington.
By Dave Molinari
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON -- Sidney Crosby recalls attending prep school in Minnesota in the spring of 2001, getting ready for his entry into major-junior hockey a couple of years later.

Ryan Whitney was a senior at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was participating in the U.S. national developmental program.

And Mark Recchi was a respected veteran, with a Stanley Cup ring and hair that was thinning a bit on top.

OK, so not everything has changed over the past six years, but one thing finally has: The Penguins are part of the NHL playoffs again.

Their 4-3 victory over Washington at the Verizon Center last night completed a sweep of the season series and raised their record to 44-23-10. That's good for 98 points, enough to lock up a place among the top eight clubs in the Eastern Conference.

Not that there was a raucous celebration -- or even a tame one -- to mark the occasion. Forget champagne in the locker room; there wasn't so much as a can of diet cola to be seen.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said he was not aware the Penguins had clinched until a reporter mentioned it, although he allowed the accomplishment was "pretty cool."

The lone negative for the Penguins was that left winger Gary Roberts left the game after taking a shot off the knee. Roberts, walking with a slight limp after the game, described himself as "day to day" and said everything done for his injury so far has been "precautionary."

Linda Spillers, Associated Press
Georges Laraque, right, and the Capitals' Donald Brashear battle in the second period last night.
Click photo for larger image.

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Playoff possibility

A likely first-round opponent for the Penguins is Ottawa in a No. 4 seed vs. No. 5 seed matchup.

Senators (45-24-8)
Points: 98
Games remaining: 5 (Montreal, at N.Y. Islanders, at New Jersey, Penguins, at Boston).
vs. teams above .500: 4.

Penguins (44-23-10)
Points: 98.
Games remaining: 5 (at Boston, at Toronto, Buffalo, at Ottawa, N.Y. Rangers).
vs. teams above .500: 4.

Race to the finish

A comparison of the Devils and Penguins as the Atlantic Conference race goes down to the wire.

Devils (45-23-8)
Points:
98
Games remaining: 6 (at Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston, Ottawa, at Philadelphia, N.Y. Islanders).
vs. teams above .500: 3.

Penguins (44-23-10)
Points: 98.
Games remaining: 5 (at Boston, at Toronto, Buffalo, at Ottawa, N.Y. Rangers).
vs. teams above .500: 4.
 

Therrien said Roberts "probably" will play when the Penguins visit Boston tomorrow at 7:08 p.m., although his injury will be looked at again today.

It's been clear for a while that the Penguins would qualify for the postseason -- "I told the players we were going to make the playoffs about three weeks ago," Therrien said -- and their focus lately has been on winning the Atlantic Division, or at least nudging past Ottawa for fourth place in the East.

"It's a great accomplishment for this team, and we're proud about clinching the playoffs," Therrien said. "But ... we want more."

The Penguins are tied with the Devils for first place in the Atlantic, although New Jersey has a game in hand. The Penguins did get help from Boston, however, as the Bruins won, 3-2, in Ottawa, allowing the Penguins to pull even with the Senators.

Crosby had a goal and an assist to push his league-leading points total to 113. San Jose center Joe Thornton, who is second in the race, had 104 before the Sharks faced Los Angeles last night.

The Penguins were guilty of some ghastly defensive lapses during the first half of the opening period -- Capitals forwards were left unchecked in front of the net on several occasions -- and Washington exploited them with goals by Alexander Semin at 5:59 and Boyd Gordon at 9:18.

"The effort we were putting in at the beginning of the game was embarrassing," right winger Georges Laraque said.

Therrien obviously agreed because he called his timeout after Gordon scored and did not use the break to congratulate his players on their outstanding effort to that point.

"He gave it to us a little bit," Whitney said.

That timeout had a lot to do with reviving the Penguins, but so did a power play that scored on its first three opportunities.

Michel Ouellet pulled the Penguins within a goal when he swatted in a Brooks Orpik rebound at 12:08 of the first. Whitney tied the game at 1:10 of the second after taking a cross-ice feed from Crosby, and Crosby put the Penguins in front to stay at 6:21 by jamming in a shot from the right post.

"We were able to get some shots through [on the power play], maybe cause a little more havoc and open up those lanes to get some nice plays," Crosby said. "It wasn't so much a system as pure hard work."

The Capitals finally managed to kill a penalty as the second wound down, but didn't have much chance to enjoy it: Eleven seconds after a roughing minor to Donald Brashear expired, Whitney beat Olaf Kolzig from inside the left circle again at 15:52 to make it 4-2.

Milan Jurcina got the Capitals within one by scoring with 31.9 seconds left in regulation, but Washington's comeback ended there. So did the Penguins' run of springs without a playoff appearance.

"It was a tough year last year, and we've been working hard this year toward that," Crosby said. "To know we're in there now feels good."

The Capitals' Chris Clark falls to the ice after taking a hit from the Penguins' Gary Roberts last night.


Mitchell Layton, Getty Images


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


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