By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — Injuries or not, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Penguins, playing without star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, rolled past the Montreal Canadiens, all but assuring Pittsburgh the top seed in the Eastern Conference following a dominating 6-4 victory Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
“You’re going to have injuries, but guys have stepped up and played well no matter who is in the lineup,” said Penguins’ forward Brandon Sutter. “It’s been a different guy who has been the hero.”
Sutter and Brenden Morrow did the job Wednesday, both scoring two goals — their 11th goals of the season and Morrow his second straight two-goal game.
The duo scored their first goals 2:06 apart in the first period, staking the Penguins to an early two-goal lead, and Pittsburgh, thanks to an aggressive forecheck and relentless offensive pressure, rolled from there despite a late scare from Montreal. Jarome Iginla, who had a two-point night, capped a three-goal first period with his 11th of the season and 1,100 NHL point.
Defenseman Doug Murray scored his first as a Penguin, Kris Letang, playing in his third game back from injury, and Matt Niskanen both registered two assists and Pascal Dupuis extended a season-high six-game point streak with a helper.
“We have a few guys going well right now,” Sutter said. “We’re just trying to keep it going and stay on track.”
Morrow led the way with three points, capping the night with his sixth career Gordie Howe hat trick after taking down Canadiens’ defenseman P.K. Subban during a third-period fight. The scrap elicited a thunderous ovation from the 18,626 in attendance, conjuring memories from the 2110 playoffs when the hated Subban sliced former Penguins’ Jordan Staal’s foot with his skate blade during a collision.
“It’s not how you see a fight, I guess,” Morrow said. “I wanted to stand up and throw some punches. I was upset with how it went.”
Not as upset as the Canadiens.
Brian Gionta, Alex Galchenyuk, Gabriel Dumon and Andrei Markov scored for the Canadiens, who lost for the third straight time since clinching a playoff berth last Thursday.
“The last three games, we haven’t gotten off to the best starts,” Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price said. “We’ve got to get back to what was making us successful at the start of the season.”
Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, tied for first in the NHL with 22 wins, stopped 31 of 35 shots for his 13th straight home victory.
Canadiens’ goalie Peter Budaj allowed three first-period goals on just nine shots before giving way to Price, who made 17 saves on 20 shots.
“I thought we got out to a good lead, did a good job, but I’m a little disappointed it got to be four goals, especially how it happened,” Pens’ coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Penguins dropped their first two games after Crosby, the NHL scoring leader, suffered a broken jaw March 30, but have rebounded to win five straight.
“We just want to keep our good habits,” Morrow said. “We’ve been winning, feeling confident, and we have some momentum.”
Pittsburgh also played without Malkin, the reigning NHL MVP and scoring champion who missed his second game with an upper body injury, NHL All-Star James Neal (concussion), and No. 2 defenseman Paul Martin, out with a broken hand.
It didn’t matter against the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re definitely missing some great players, and it will be great to get them back as soon as possible,” Iginla said. “We’re doing a lot of different things well and, fortunately, it’s led to some continued success with some great guys out.”
Pittsburgh now leads the Canadiens and Boston Bruins by nine points, lowering its magic number to clinch home ice in the Eastern Conference to three. The Penguins are at Boston Friday.
“You play all year to get as high of a seed as you can,” Sutter said. “The last few weeks, we’ve won some games, climbed as far as we can, and now we’ve created a bit of a gap.”
The Penguins, winners of 14 of 15 at home and 20 of 22 overall, finished with a perfect record in the season series against Montreal for the first time ever.
Sutter started the party, giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead at 12:36 of the first when he beat Budaj on the glove side with a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
Morrow put Pittsburgh ahead by two goals 2:06 later. Morrow found a loose rebound from a Dupuis shot at the faceoff dot, wristing it over Budaj’s shoulder.
Iginla scored the Penguins’ third first-period goal with 21 seconds left before the intermission.
Chris Kunitz sent a cross-crease pass to Iginla, who dumped the puck over a sprawled Budaj, making it 3-0.
The trend continued four minutes into the second period when Beau Bennett set up Morrow’s second goal of the game, a shot that snuck under Prices’ stick during a two-on-one, making it 4-0.
Gionta gave Montreal life at 12:18 of the second, one-timing Brandon Prust’s blind, behind-the-net feed past a surprised Fleury.
The Penguins took control again on Sutter’s second goal of the game, set up by Morrow.
Sutter, during a rush, pushed the rebound from Morrow’s shot past Price for the power-play goal to make it 5-1.
Galchenyuk pulled the Canadiens within three goals with 2:25 left in the second, beating Fleury on a backhand-to-forehand move on the rush.
Dumont unleashed a blistering shot past Fleury less than five minutes into the third to make it 5-3, but Murray put the Pens ahead by three goals again 1:15 later after his harmless-looking shot from the point bounced over Prices’ glove hand. It was Murray’s first goal since Dec. 9, 2010 at Buffalo, a span of 146 games.
“We don’t ever want to give up four goals, but that goal kind of took the air out of them,” Murray said.
NOTES: Penguins’ forward Jussi Jokinen left the game with an illness…Iginla became the 58th player in NHL history to record 1,100 points…Sutter has scored double-digit goals four straight years…The Penguins, coming off a two-for-19 dry spell, are six-of-16 on the power play in their past three games…Pittsburgh is a perfect 20-for-20 on the penalty kill in its last six home games…Former Penguins’ winger Mark Recchi and team doctor Dr. Charles Burke were named to the Penguins’ all-time team…Before the game, the Penguins held a moment of silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.