WINNIPEG, Manitoba —
It had been inevitable for quite a while, but now it is official: The Penguins are the champions of the Metropolitan Division.
They actually clinched the top spot there an hour or so before their 4-2 victory over Winnipeg at MTS Centre Thursday night became official.
Philadelphia’s 2-0 loss to Columbus at the Wells Fargo Center was more than enough to assure the Penguins’ spot atop the Metropolitan, as they have wrapped up a division title in consecutive years for just the second time in franchise history.
That the Penguins (49-23-5) were a virtual lock to win the division had been obvious for months; how long they’ll last in the Stanley Cup playoffs that begin in less than two weeks is a far more pressing concern.
The game against the Jets was, in some ways, a microcosm of their play during the past few weeks.
There were some times when the Penguins were impressive, and looked capable of competing with almost any opponent. And there were others when their focus and discipline waned, and they look overmatched against a team that had been all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
Defenseman Paul Martin returned after missing the previous 18 games with a broken hand and took a regular shift alongside Brooks Orpik.
What’s more, Martin scored the winning goal and got work on the power play and killing penalties, just as coach Dan Bylsma had planned.
Martin’s return wasn’t the Penguins’ only significant personnel change, however.
Bylsma reconfigured his forward lines, plugging Beau Bennett into the spot Lee Stempniak had been filling alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
Stempniak dropped down to the third line, with Brandon Sutter and Tanner Glass.
Bennett and Crosby teamed up to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead at 12:44 of the opening period, just as a penalty on Jets defenseman Mark Stuart, who had been called for tripping Bennett, was about to expire.
Bennett took a cross-ice feed from Crosby and threw a shot past Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec from low in the left circle for his third of the season. Jussi Jokinen, who earlier had been denied by Pavelec on a quality chance, picked up the second assist.
Jokinen appeared to injure his right wrist on a hard hit by Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien with a little more than two minutes left in the period, but did not miss a shift.
Crosby’s assist on the Bennett goal was his 101st point of the season and extended his scoring streak to six games.
It also probably wasn’t much of a surprise to Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, who had been effusive in his praise of Crosby before the game.
“There are 29 teams with a plan [to contain him] and he's got 100 points,” Maurice said. “That's how good the plan is. … He’s got 100 points for a reason.”
The Penguins killed a hooking minor to Taylor Pyatt that spilled over into the second period, but gave up the tying goal not long after returning to full strength.
They gave up an odd-man break and, while goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was able to stop Blake Wheeler’s shot from the slot, he couldn’t prevent Olli Jokinen from tossing in the rebound at 2:52.
Less than seven minutes later, loose play in their own end cost the Penguins another goal, as the Jets carried and passed the puck around in the Penguins’ zone almost effortlessly until Zach Redmond scored from near the top of the right circle at 9:42.
Craig Adams, who scored three goals in the Penguins’ first four games but just one in the 72 that followed, tied the score at 18:47 by beating Pavelec from near the top of the right circle.
Stempniak and Matt Niskanen got assists.
Martin, who had just two goals in his first 33 games, put the Penguins back in front to stay with a power-play goal at 7:42, just 11 seconds after Stuart was sent off for hooking Crosby.
Martin got a pass from James Neal and beat Pavelec from near the left hash mark for his third. Crosby got the second assist.
Brian Gibbons, who had struggled for much of the evening, put the game away at 16:24, as he picked off a Winnipeg pass in the neutral zone and carried it into the Jets’ end before throwing a shot by Pavelec from near the top of the left circle.