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Fleury stellar as short-handed Penguins win again

The SportsXchange

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins were without three of the top offensive players in the league -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal -- but they still had their top-flight goalie.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 26 saves, including a crucial stop on a Tomas Fleischmann short-handed break-away attempt in the final minute, to lead the Penguins to a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers Saturday night at the BB&T Center.

The Penguins have won 19 of their past 21 games and were able to win without Malkin (shoulder), Crosby (broken jaw) and Neal (concussion). Only Malkin's injury is new, and it is considered minor. Had this been a playoff game, he likely would have played.

Brenden Morrow and Kris Letang scored in the first period, and the Penguins held on from there. Morrow added an empty-net goal with 20.5 seconds left.

"I thought we battled real hard," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I don't think you can talk about the game without mentioning Morrow and his line, and Fleury made the big save at the end."

The Penguins, who entered the game ranked just 25th in the league in penalty killing, stopped all four of the Panthers' power plays.

"After our last game, giving up three power-play goals, we were put in some tough situations in the third period," Bylsma said of a high-sticking call on Matt Cooke with 10:15 left and an elbowing penalty on Morrow with 5:10 remaining. "We had to come up with a couple of big kills.

"Special teams are always about the next one, regardless of what your statistics are. Sometimes the toughest thing on PKs is that if you give up a couple of goals to not have confidence and not be aggressive. But tonight we stepped over the boards with the mindset we were going to kill those penalties, and we certainly did that."

Given that the Penguins have the best record in the Eastern Conference and the Panthers are in last place, the game had all the makings of a rout, especially when Pittsburgh scored twice early.

With 14:49 elapsed in the first period, Letang scored his fourth goal of the season, connecting on a slap shot. Beau Bennett and Morrow got the assists.

Less than four minutes later, Morrow scored his eighth goal of the season, getting a wrist shot past a screened-off Panthers goalie, Jacob Markstrom. Bennett and Joe Vitale had the assists.

But then Pittsburgh's offense suddenly went silent.

The Panthers took advantage, coming back to make it 2-1 with 4:10 gone in the second period. Florida got traffic in front of Fleury, and the goal went to Scottie Upshall on a tip-in, his third of the season. Brian Campbell and Jack Skille earned the assists.

Pittsburgh winger Craig Adams said the game was a microcosm of his team's season.

"We look awful at times, and then we come back and look like our old selves," he said. "We just have to keep working."

With the win, the Penguins avenged a 6-4 loss suffered on Feb. 26, the last time they played Florida.

For the Panthers, defenseman Mike Weaver (knee) returned for the first time since Feb. 28. Winger Peter Mueller (birth of baby) also came back after missing Thursday's game against Winnipeg.

Markstrom lost his third straight start, including a 7-2 rout on Thursday against the Jets.

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said his team's "compete level" was much better after the first period.

"When you do that, it's amazing how pucks start bouncing your way," Dineen said. "Simple works for us -- shoot the puck, good things follow, and we may not have done enough of that tonight.

"Fleury's save (on Fleischmann) was a game-changer."

Dineen also said that he and Upshall are "at odds" at times.

"I'm stubborn, and I have a belief in the way he has to play to be effective," Dineen said. "He got on the score sheet tonight, and I'm very happy for him. His effort and sincerity was there tonight."

NOTES: Crosby, who has not played since breaking his jaw and losing several teeth during a March 30 game against the New York Islanders, has been cleared to fly and accompanied the team to its Florida road trip, including Saturday against the Panthers. Crosby has not yet been cleared to skate, but he is determined to play before the regular season ends later this month. ... Despite the time missed, Crosby still leads the NHL in points. ... The Penguins just got defenseman Letang back Thursday after he missed two weeks because of a broken toe and a groin injury. Fellow defenseman Paul Martin (broken hand) has resumed skating for the first time in two weeks, and it's possible he could return for the playoffs in May. ... The Panthers' Fleischmann entered Saturday with a seven-game point streak. During the streak, he had three goals and five assists. His career best for a point streak is nine, set in 2009. ... Panthers goalie Jose Theodore practiced this week for the first time since he injured his groin March 2 and he wants to get into at least one game before the season ends. Theodore is an unrestricted free agent after this season and may be the odd man out of the Panthers' goalie rotation. Rookie Markstrom is a restricted free agent and will likely return. Backup Scott Clemmensen has one year left on his contract and is a good bet to return in that same role. ... Up next, the Penguins return home to play Montreal on Wednesday. ... The Panthers start a four-game road trip Tuesday against the New York Islanders.
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