Evgeni Malkin and Beau Bennett scored 13 seconds apart and Pascal Dupuis sealed the win with an empty-netter in the final seconds of the third, ensuring the Pittsburgh Penguins would even their season series with the freefalling Carolina Hurricanes and clinch their second Atlantic Division title in five seasons.
With the win, Pittsburgh becomes the first team to clinch their division this season and the first Eastern Conference club to reach 30 wins and 60 points. The Pens have now won 17 of their last 19 contests dating back to a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the Hurricanes in late February.
Playoff seeding is of no small importance to the Penguins, who have been dropped in the first round in two straight seasons, each time drawing the 4-5 match-up and each time facing a club that topped 100 points in the regular season.
The Penguins swept their first-round opponent in 2008, their first Atlantic Division-winning season.
With less than ten games to go, only Boston and Montreal can match or better the Pens' current points total of 60.
After two ugly losses to the Sabres and Rangers last week, the Pens have gotten back to the right side of the column with consecutive wins. Pittsburgh has now won 17 of 19, and trail the Chicago Blackhawks by four points in the President's Trophy race.
Not bad work for a team missing four of its best players.
James Neal's absence (concussion) created another vacancy in the top-six Tuesday, where Brenden Morrow found work with new linemates Pascal Dupuis and Jussi Jokinen, and turned in his strongest performance with the Penguins yet. Morrow was physical early while the rest of the team scrambled, turning a strong forecheck into his first goal with the Pens.
A deliberate net-front presence, Morrow's first with Pittsburgh, a quick deke to create space that he capped by going high over Justin Peters' shoulder while falling down, was a thing of beauty.
"[Jussi Jokinen] made a good backhand play to me, kind of made one move...that's all I got," Morrow said after the game. "The guy fell down and I shot it. It found a hole."
With so many regulars on the shelf—Sidney Crosby, Neal, Kris Letang and Paul Martin are four of the Pens' top-seven scorers and all missed Tuesday's contest—the Penguins are leaning on their deadline acquisitions (called "depth" moves at the time) to become primary contributors.
All told, Morrow (goal), Jokinen (assist) and Jarome Iginla (assist, 3 shots) figured in on three of the Pens' five goals, including Iginla's assist on Malkin's game-winner.
Malkin now has 27 points in 21 games (1.29 points per game).
While the Penguins walked away with the win, it certainly wasn't clean. Carolina's run-and-gun offense gave Pittsburgh's blue-liners fits all game long, especially when giving chase to their speedy forwards behind Marc-Andre Fleury's net.
With Martin and Letang shelved, Simon Despres somehow found himself a healthy scratch once again. The absence showed, as the top power play unit generated nothing in two scoring chances and the club's bigger blue-liners spent much of their night chasing Carolina forecheckers.
Letang skated with the team before the game but didn't go. He could make his return at some point on the team's current road trip, relieving a unit that sorely misses the speed and scoring potential he and Martin have provided this season.
However, his return can be delayed until his injury has fully healed. Just three of Pittsburgh's remaining eight opponents currently sits in playoff position, and the Pens own leads of five and six points over the Canadiens and Bruins, respectively, with one game against each of those Northeast Division opponents remaining.
The Pens take on the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday, and have won both prior contests against Tampa Bay this season.