The Penguins wrapped up the regular season Sunday afternoon with a 5-2 victory over Atlanta at Philips Arena. It was the fourth straight win for the piping hot Pens, who enter the Stanley Cup playoffs on a roll.
“We have had a great year, but we wanted to go into the playoffs a hot team,” said defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who picked up three assists to earn the No. 1 star.
With their first-round match-up already determined, coach Dan Bylsma decided to rest several key regulars. Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Paul Martin and Jordan Staal watched from the press box, as Mike Comrie, Chris Conner, Brent Johnson, Matt Niskanen and Eric Tangradi skated in their place.
Predictably, the Penguins were somewhat sluggish in the early going. Eric Godard and Max Talbot drew a pair of penalties 11 seconds apart to hand the Thrashers a 5-on-3 power play. Andrew Ladd cashed in thanks to a nice backhand pass from Bryan Little to stake Atlanta to a 1-0 lead.
After being soundly outplayed during the opening 20 minutes, the gritty Pens responded in style with a four-goal second-period eruption. Tyler Kennedy jump-started the attack at 6:25 with a power-play tally to knot the score at 1-1. Midway through the frame, Pascal Dupuis converted a made-to-order feed from Talbot into his 17th goal of the season.
Tough guy Mike Rupp was next to tickle the twine. At 15:27 the rugged winger scooped up a carom of an Eric Godard shot and lasered it into the upper left corner of the net for his third goal in five games. Mark Letestu closed out the blitzkrieg three minutes later, banking the puck in off harried goalie Chris Mason’s right skate from an impossibly sharp angle to run the score to 4-1.
With the game well in hand, the black-and-gold’s intensity waned during the final 20 minutes. Atlanta dominated the shot clock, 16-3, and enjoyed a nearly endless succession of odd-man breaks.
Fortunately, Brent Johnson was up to the task. The veteran backup kept the surging Thrashers at bay until the 13:15 mark, when Tim Stapleton struck on the power play to pare the Pens’ lead to 4-2. With two minutes left Johnson made a spectacular glove save on Ladd to blunt Atlanta’s last real opportunity. In all, “Johnny” stopped 37 of 39 shots with a superb effort that typified his season.
At 18:32, Comrie scored his first Penguins goal into an empty net to seal the victory and cap off an immensely satisfying season.
The Penguins equaled the Flyers’ total of 106 points, but finished second in the Atlantic Division by virtue of tiebreakers … The 106 points is the second-highest total in franchise history … The Pens tied a club record with 24 road wins (set in 1992-93) while establishing a new record for points earned on the road (54) … The team topped the league in penalty-killing (86.1 %) for the first time.
The Penguins begin their quest for the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night at CONSOL Energy Center against Tampa Bay. The Pens and the Lightning split the season series 2-2.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and colorful history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more. A must have for any true Penguins fan.