It took longer than perhaps anyone would have liked, but the Pittsburgh Penguins shook a three-game losing streak en route to a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, sweeping the season series from their new divisional foes while earning a postseason berth for the eighth-straight year.
Fleury's strong performance included a number of in-tight saves in the game's final minutes while the Blue Jackets had six skaters on the ice after James Wisniewski pulled Columbus to within one goal on a late third-period power play.
Fleury made Bennett's marker stand up as the game-winner, sending the Penguins to their eighth-consecutive postseason appearance. Pittsburgh has now reached the playoffs in each season since Sidney Crosby's rookie season in 2005-06.
Bennett made his first appearance with the Penguins in months on Friday. His third-period marker would become the game-winner, and came off a rush started by an excellent sequence by Robert Bortuzzo. Bortuzzo broke up a Columbus rush and then swept the puck into the neutral zone, where Bennett and Jussi Jokinen picked things up and scored on a 2-on-1.
The goal came less than a minute after Kunitz's opening marker.
With the win, the Penguins became the second team in the East to claim their postseason berth. Pittsburgh is almost assured the second seed in the East, as they trail the Boston Bruins for first overall by nearly as large a gap as they hold over the rest of the Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh has fallen off of late, going 7-7-2 in their last 16 contests following the Olympic break. The team has struggled with injuries and fatigue, going off the rails in a month they typically dominate under head coach Dan Bylsma.
However, the run of bad luck could be a boon. Pittsburgh hasn't necessarily turned its cozy stretch runs into inspired postseasons, and the recent run of poor play, bad bounces and general malaise -- should it turn into a strong postseason run -- might prove to be the cure for what has ailed the Penguins in recent postseasons.
Of course, Friday was just another win over the Blue Jackets, minus their top netminder. Don't call it a turnaround just yet.
Two big stories to note: not only did the Penguins avoid losing another player to injury after having lost Evgeni Malkin and Marcel Goc in recent contests, but the Pens saw one of their walking injured return to game action. Bennett played his first game with the Penguins in months and was the team's best skater all night.
If the pending returns of Malkin, Kris Letang and Paul Martin bring with them the same fresh legs and energy as the Pens got out of Bennett on Friday, Pittsburgh may not be in such bad shape after all.
The Penguins get the Blackhawks on Sunday. Chicago has been treading water themselves since crushing the Penguins in the final Stadium Series game. Friday's win over the Blue Jackets is a good start, but the Penguins would do well to turn their luck against sizable Western Conference teams by taking one back from Chicago.
S/t to Hooks for the headline, man.