Penguins built their big lead while the rest of the division struggled early

While others snoozed, the Penguins feasted.

The Metropolitan Division, newly fashioned and newly named this season under NHL realignment, was thought to be beefy. It featured longtime Penguins division foes such as Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and New Jersey, plus newcomers such as Washington and Carolina.

Early on, though, several of the Metropolitan teams struggled. The Penguins did not, a big reason they have a large lead atop the division standings with 92 points through 65 games.

“Uncharacteristically, a few of our rivals, a few of the teams in our division … didn’t have a good first 20 games of the season,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Friday. “We’ve been able to get out to a lead in our division. We didn’t anticipate that this season.”

Going into games Friday night, no team was within 18 points of the Penguins in the Metropolitan. What’s more, five teams — including the Penguins’ opponent today, Philadelphia — were bunched within four points of each other with no guarantee of being part of the field when the playoffs begin in a month.

The Penguins are 19-5-1 within the Metropolitan Division, the best intradivision record in the NHL. Penguins center Sidney Crosby not only leads the NHL with 88 points, but his 15 goals against Metropolitan Division teams also are the most by any player within his division.

They also have the best intraconference record (31-11-3) against fellow Eastern Conference teams, although Boston (Atlantic Division) has a current seven-game winning streak that has given the Bruins a one-point conference lead over the Penguins. The Penguins, however, have a game in hand on Boston.

Staying strong against the teams they face most often has put the Penguins in a good spot.

“I think you could definitely call it a reward,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “Certainly, the start that we were able to generate through the first three months has given us a pretty good cushion. Now that we have … I don’t want to say points to play with because we take them seriously … but now that we’re at a point where we’ve got [17] games left, we want to put all our P’s and Q’s together and make sure we’re doing the right things so that we’re preparing the right way for the postseason. Everybody wants the wins, but it’s more important that we focus on the way we play. If we play the right way, the dominoes will fall themselves.”

Things are so tight among some of the teams behind the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division that they could deal a serious blow to the playoff hopes of the rival Flyers with a sweep of a home-and-home series today and Sunday.

Under realignment, the top three clubs from each of the four divisions plus two wild-card teams from each conference — regardless of division — will qualify for the playoffs. Before Friday, the Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets and Rangers held the top three Metropolitan Division spots, with the Flyers clinging to a wild-card spot.

Back-to-back games against the Washington Capitals earlier this week and the ones this weekend against the Flyers represent the Penguins’ first such sets against Metropolitan opponents since the Olympic break.

“It feels like we haven’t played [the Flyers] for a long time,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said.

They have just three more games against division teams after this weekend — March 28 at Columbus and home games April 1 against Carolina and April 12 versus the Flyers in their next-to-last regular-season game.

In October, the Penguins were 5-0 against Metropolitan Division opponents. By the end of November, they were 9-3 and by the end of December, they were 15-4.

“When teams are struggling, you’ve got to jump on it and get the two points,” Engelland said. “You never expected us to have a 20-point lead going into March. To have those games and capitalize on them early in the season was good, but they’re going to look to rebound.”

Of course, there are other implications when the Penguins meet Philadelphia.

“I think the Flyers, that’s always been such a big rivalry,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It’s pretty intense, pretty fun to play.

“We want to beat them whether they’re in the division or not.”

Shelly Anderson:, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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