Fleury saves 31 in 4th shutout
Sidney Crosby slides under the check of Calgary's Cory Sarich last night at Mellon Arena in the Penguins' 2-0 victory against the Flames.
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The Stanley Cup playoffs begin in three weeks, and it's looking as if the Penguins will be a part of them.
And, more important, like they know how they'll have to play once they get there.
Basically, a lot like they did in their 2-0 victory against the Calgary Flames last night at Mellon Arena.
"That was a picture-perfect game," center Jordan Staal said.
Well, not exactly -- the Penguins still have a few things to work on, like scoring into empty nets -- but they gave the effort and made the sacrifices needed to win high-stakes games.
They played the body hard and often, finishing with 44 hits.
They blocked shots. Eighteen of them, to be precise.
They snuffed all five power plays Calgary was awarded, and converted on one of their two.
And above all, they got the kind of goaltending required to survive a best-of-seven series against quality opponents.
"I felt pretty good, pretty relaxed," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who turned aside all 31 shots the Flames threw at him to record his fourth shutout of the season.
"He made some big saves," Penguins interim coach Dan Bylsma said. "And guys played well in front of him, limited the scoring chances mostly to the outside. It was a great job by our goaltender, but it was a great job by our team defense as well."
The Penguins (40-27-8) remain sixth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind fifth-place Carolina, but they have a game-in-hand on the Hurricanes.
Their magic numbers for clinching a playoff berth (without introducing tiebreakers) have been reduced to 10 (Florida) and nine (Buffalo). Any combination of points earned by the Penguins and/or lost by those teams that add up to those totals will guarantee them a place among the top eight clubs in the East.
The Penguins got an inauspicious start -- on the first shift, defenseman Brooks Orpik backed into Fleury and bowled him over, and defenseman Sergei Gonchar picked up a hooking minor -- but rebounded to score the only goal of the opening period.
Kris Letang put them in front to stay during a power play at 8:20, sweeping in a shot from left side of the crease for his ninth. The goal was made possible by Sidney Crosby, who set Letang up with a mostly open net.
That was the only goal by either team until 6:43 of the third period, when defenseman Hal Gill made it 2-0 by scoring for the first time in 26 games. He took a drop pass from Malkin and threw a shot past goalie Miikka Kiprusoff high on the stick side for his second of the season.
"When you're going with [Malkin], you never know when you're going to get the puck or where you're going to get it," Gill said. "I just tried to support him as much as I could and when it came to me I tried to get it on net."
Yeah, well, it worked, even though Bylsma, smiling, allowed after the game that, "I always get scared when Gill's that far up the ice."
Gill was able to do that because his partner, Rob Scuderi, sparked the scoring sequence by poking the puck away from Flames winger Mike Cammalleri after he had carried it into the Penguins' end.
Scuderi joked after the game that "the poke-check assist is right up my alley," but it was that kind of efficiency that allowed the Penguins to defeat a team that holds the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
"From the second period on, we were [playing] the way we want to play," Cooke said.
Until the final 75 seconds of regulation, anyway. Between then and the end of the game, Cooke twice failed to hit the net Kiprusoff had vacated in favor of an extra attacker, and Crosby and Malkin each missed it once.
"It's good to laugh about now," Bylsma said. "When you miss an empty net like that, you hope it doesn't come back and bite you."
Turned out the Penguins didn't need an empty-netter to defeat the Flames. Just the kind of solid all-around performance they knew would be needed against a such a rugged and talented opponent.
"You're going to have to battle hard, you're going to have to play good defense, good goaltending, good special teams," Bylsma said. "That was a lot of what you saw tonight."
First Published March 26, 2009 12:00 am