With an all-encompassing beatdown of the rival Philadelphia Flyers, the Penguins secured something Sunday evening.
Not a playoff spot. They did that with a win over the Islanders the day before.
Not second place in the Metropolitan Division either, though that could come soon enough. They have moved five points clear of the Rangers in the battle for that position, which comes with home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
What they acquired was evidence.
More evidence that when they play their best, they can beat — and, sometimes, even humiliate — the top teams in hockey.
Sidney Crosby and Beau Bennett scored first-period goals, and the Penguins took a group of Flyers who had lost in regulation just three times in their previous 18 games and handed them a 6-2 blowout loss.
“Our players deserve a lot of credit for how hard they’re playing and how smart they’re playing. It’s a combination of those two things that add up to results,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It should give them plenty of evidence that we can beat anybody if we play the game the right way.”
The dominant performance was nothing new for these Penguins, who have won six in a row and 12 of their past 13 games. And as good as they have been in general, the Penguins have been even better against their biggest rivals. In the past month, they have played the Flyers, Rangers, Capitals and Blue Jackets a total of seven times. They have won all seven games by a combined score of 31-13.
“We needed the points. We weren’t in a playoff spot when this all started,” forward Eric Fehr said. “We aren’t looking at them as rival games. We’re looking at them as must-win games for us.”
With rivalry games come nastiness, and there was plenty of that to go around.
Most notably, on a play that went unpenalized in the third period, Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds scraped his stick blade across the side of goalie Matt Murray’s neck after a whistle.
“He kind of apologized as he was skating away,” Murray said. “I don’t think it was an accident, but there’s no harm done. It’s not a big deal.”
Simmonds also gave Kris Letang an unpenalized elbow to the chops in the second period. Letang said he didn’t expect ugliness like that in a game this important to the Flyers, who are one of four teams battling for the last three playoff spots in the conference.
“Every time you start getting nasty, you put your team in trouble. You put your team on the PK or something like that,” Letang said. “I don’t think you expect that. You expect a good hockey game. You expect a solid hockey game.”
The Penguins answered any physical insults they might have suffered with goals.
In the span of 65 seconds in the first period, Crosby backhanded in the rebound of a Phil Kessel shot on the power play, and Bennett finished off a two-on-one with Conor Sheary. Patric Hornqvist scored in the second period to make it 3-0.
In the third, every time the Flyers tried to mount a comeback, the Penguins put down the uprising with a goal — one off the stick of Carl Hagelin and two from Fehr.
Punishing opponents with goals, rather than retaliatory hacks, whacks or punches, has become a way of life for these Penguins.
“It hurts more on the scoreboard than on your body,” Letang said. “That’s the way we play. We’re not a team built on toughness. We’re a team built on speed. When we see those big guys trying to hang out with us and try to be nasty, we try to strike back at them the way we can.”