PITTSBURGH -- The Penguins didn't want to take this to the last day of the season, not with the team they can't seem to beat in Pittsburgh coming to town on Saturday – the very same team that awaits them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week.
Chris Kunitz scored on their first shot of the game, Tyler Kennedy and Richard Park added goals and the Penguins relied on their secondary scorers to beat the New York Rangers 5-2 on Thursday night and secure fourth place in the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season.
Pascal Dupuis assisted on Park's goal, extending his NHL season's best scoring streak to 16 games (nine goals, 12 assists) to help the Penguins beat the Rangers – the Eastern Conference's top-seeded team -- for the fourth time in a row this season.
Playing before their 250th consecutive sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins made certain that Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia couldn't move past them and secure home ice for their all-Pennsylvania No. 4 vs. No. 5 playoff matchup that starts next week. Philadelphia assured itself of fifth place by beating Buffalo 2-1.
"I think we had a pretty good idea we were going to see them," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "It was just a matter of where we were going to start. It's kind of a different scenario playing them the last game of the year, knowing we are going to play them in the playoffs."
The Rangers, who secured first place in the east by beating Philadelphia 5-3 on Tuesday, remained at 109 points as they try to secure the Presidents' Trophy for regular-season superiority. But they now can't match their 1993-94 franchise record of 112 points.
While the Rangers dominate the Flyers – New York swept the six-game season series – it's the other way around when the Flyers and Penguins meet.
Philadelphia has won four of five from the Penguins and is 5-0 in Pittsburgh since Consol opened last season, including an intense, emotional 6-4 win Sunday that ended with Flyers coach Peter Laviolette standing on his bench screaming at Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato as several players skirmished on the ice.
No wonder the Penguins wanted to wrap up home ice without having to rely on beating the Flyers at home. With both teams knowing where they'll finish, Saturday's game might not have quite the edge to it that the Sunday game did. Both teams very well could rest some key players.
No wonder the Rangers don't plan to think about the Penguins' recent success against them unless the rivals meet up deeper into the playoffs.
"They're a good team and we know that but we don't know even know if we will play them again," Richards said. "We can't sit here and worry about that. We've got a lot of other things to worry about next week. The last thing on our mind right now is what our record is against these guys."
The first thing on Rangers coach John Tortorella's mind after the loss was Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik's knee-to-knee hit on center Derek Stepan with 4:29 remaining. Orpik was given a five-minute major for kneeing and a game misconduct.
"It's a cheap, dirty hit. I wonder what would happen if we did it to their two whining stars, wonder what would happen?" Tortorella said, in an apparent reference to Crosby and NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin. "So I'm anxious to see what happens with the League. There's no respect amongst players. None. "
Rangers goalie Martin Biron was nearly as angry as Tortorella, saying, "It was pretty gutless and dirty. That guy is known for sticking his knee out, his elbow, I don't really care what he says in defense of what he did. It was dirty."
Orpik didn't talk to reporters after the game. The Rangers gave no medical update on Stepan.
Malkin made it 4-1 midway through the third period with his 49th goal – one short of his stated goal of 50 – and his 106th point. Malkin converted from the slot after Crosby banked a pass off the end boards to Kunitz, who steered the puck back to Malkin. Crosby had three goals and 10 assists in his last four games.
Earlier, Malkin was announced as the Penguins' MVP award winner as chosen by his teammates. The Hart Trophy might be up next for Malkin, whose previous career high was 47 goals in 2007-08, though he is thinking mostly about the Flyers now that the teams could be playing as many as eight consecutive games against each other.
"We know how tough it is to play Philly," he said. "We have to be ready to play them on home ice."
With goalie Marc-Andre Fleury back on his game after uncharacteristically surrendering 14 goals while losing his previous three starts, the Penguins (50-25-6) didn't need to rely strictly on their star power to secure only the second 50-win season since they joined the NHL in 1967. Their 1992-93 Presidents' Trophy-winning team went 56-21-7.
"It's a good team accomplishment and we're proud of ourselves for that," Dupuis said. "But all they do now is they give us a pass to the postseason. It's up to us to do something (with it)."
While the Penguins are assured of finishing with the second-most points in the conference, they can be seeded no higher than fourth because the division champions earn the top three seeds.
Fleury gave up Brandon Dubinsky's 10th goal less than five minutes in as the Rangers briefly tied it at 1, but finished with 35 saves to earn his career-high 42nd win and the 226th of his career, tying him with Tom Barrasso for the franchise record.
"A great honor for me to catch up to a guy like that who's been on top and won a couple of Stanley Cups," Fleury said.
Biron is 2-5-1 in his last eight starts against the Penguins, including a 5-2 loss on March 15. He stopped 27 of 31 shots before Kris Letang's empty-net goal in the final minute.
Kunitz beat him 1:11 into the game by re-directing Letang's shot from the high slot. Kennedy put Pittsburgh back into the lead at 2-1 by collecting a long rebound of Jordan Staal's shot from the left point and putting a knuckleball-like shot under the crossbar at 8:27.
With 40-goal scorer James Neal, Steve Sullivan and Matt Niskanen sitting out with injuries, the Penguins moved Park up to Malkin's line to start the game. He didn't stay there long, but still scored his first goal since March 3 by threading the puck between Biron's right pad and the left goal post at 5:11 of the second.
"It was good to see him play some big minutes and get a big goal for us," Dupuis said.
Brian Boyle had a goal late in the game and added an assist for the Rangers, who had been 20-1-1 when he picked up at least one point.