With a lineup that bore only a small resemblance to the one they’ll likely ice in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins persevered the absence of Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Evgeni Malkin and Paul Martin to grind out a 3-1 victory Saturday night in Florida.
Brenden Morrow scored a pair of goals and assisted on another, supporting Marc-Andre Fleury’s 25 saves and powering the Penguins (32-10-0, 64 points) to their fourth straight win. Pittsburgh has gone 19-2 since Feb. 28, an incredible surge that has boosted the Pens seven points ahead of Montreal for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Malkin was a late scratch due to a recurring upper-body injury, pushing Beau Bennett into an increased role. The rookie responded with assists on first-period goals by defenseman Kris Letang and Morrow that gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead.
The Panthers, last in the East with a 13-22-6 record, cut the margin in half when Scottie Upshall scored 4:10 into the second. Towering Florida netminder Jacob Markstrom stopped 19 shots, but didn’t have to make many great saves against a Penguins attack that was inconsistent without three of its major weapons.
Crosby (broken jaw), Neal (concussion) and Martin (broken wrist) were all missing for the third straight game, with no solid return date set for any of them. Malkin is day-to-day, according to coach Dan Bylsma in his post-game media availability. The Penguins will have three days off before hosting Montreal on Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
If the Pens were worried about their laid-up comrades, it didn’t show in Saturday’s first period at BB&T Center in Sunrise. Pittsburgh outshot Florida 7-6 in the frame in addition to owning the edge in play. Letang made that advantage count when his point shot whizzed past Markstrom with 5:11 left before intermission.
Morrow and Bennett earned assists on the fourth of Letang’s injury-shortened season, and the duo hooked up again with 1:33 remaining. This time, Bennett fed Morrow for a great chance that Markstrom initially stopped, but Morrow banked the rebound off the goalie and in for his eighth – and second as a Penguin.
After Upshall cleaned up his own rebound early in the second, Fleury made a couple of key saves to keep the Penguins on top. He denied Upshall on a partial breakaway and talented youngster Jonathan Huberdeau before he could deposit a loose puck, then made a key stop on Tomas Fleischmann on a shorthanded chance late in the third.
With the Panthers still shorthanded in the final minute, Pascal Dupuis snagged a neutral-zone turnover and hit Morrow with a quick pass for the latter’s third goal in three games. Morrow ended up with five points on the Penguins’ perfect three-game trip that included stops at Carolina and Tampa Bay.