With their first Atlantic Division title in five years under wraps, the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday continue their quest to lock up the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a road matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Penguins officially clinched a playoff spot on Sunday despite being idle, but on Tuesday they took care of their own business by downing the Carolina Hurricanes 5-3. The win, Pittsburgh's second straight and 17th in 19 games, gave the franchise its first division title since 2008, the first of back-to- back Stanley Cup Finals appearances. The Pens lost to Detroit that season before beating the Red Wings for the Cup the following year.
With 60 points on the current season, the Penguins assured themselves of finishing no lower than the second seed. They are currently four points ahead of the second-seeded Boston Bruins, who have nine games left on their schedule to the Pens' eight and host the New York Islanders tonight.
Pittsburgh took the opener of a three-game swing in Carolina, getting goals from Evgeni Malkin and Beau Bennett 13 seconds apart midway through the third period. Pascal Dupuis later sealed the win with an empty-net goal after notching two assists and Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves.
"We've always had good teams, we just haven't been able to win it with our division being so tough," said defenseman Brooks Orpik. "So I think it's definitely a good thing for us, especially in the shortened season. It's been a grind here; we still have a ways to go."
Brenden Morrow scored his first goal in seven games with the Pens, while Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen both had assists. All three players were acquired by Pittsburgh prior to last week's trade deadline.
The late-season additions have helped the Pens deal with the loss of captain Sidney Crosby, who has missed the last four games due to a broken jaw. Fellow forward James Neal also missed Tuesday's game with a concussion, while defensemen Paul Martin (right wrist surgery) and Kris Letang (lower body) remain out as well.
The Lightning are becoming a long shot to reach the playoffs as they are eight points back of a spot with nine games to play.
Tampa Bay had lost two straight and six of nine prior to Tuesday's 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Steven Stamkos scored the game-winning goal with 5:04 left to play, 16 seconds after the Sens took a penalty.
Stamkos' goal was his NHL high-tying 26th of the season, while Martin St. Louis had two assists to surpass 900 career assists. Vincent Lecavalier and Pierre-Cedric Labrie both added goals, with Labrie getting the first of his NHL career.
Ben Bishop also had a first on Tuesday, making his home debut for the Lightning after being acquired from the Senators prior to last week's trade deadline. He made 31 saves to best his former club and has started all four games for the Bolts since being acquired.
"That was a great feeling," Bishop said. "It was nice that it was against my old team. I wanted to get the two points for the team. It's not about me versus them at all."
The Lightning have been outscored 27-12 by the Penguins during a five-game series losing streak. They had won their past three at home versus Pittsburgh before suffering a defeat in the most recent game in Tampa on Jan. 15, 2012.