The Pittsburgh Penguins
talked it about for weeks -- if they could sweep their final three games against the Rangers, they just might overhaul New York for first place in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division.
Coach Dan Bylsma
didn't discourage such talk, believing it might be a motivator for the stretch drive.
As it turns out, the Penguins could sweep those three games but still not overtake the Rangers, who secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs by finishing off a season sweep of the Atlantic Division rival Flyers with a 5-3 victory Tuesday.
The Rangers go into the next-to-the-last game of the season for both teams with 109 points, and the most the Penguins could end with is 108 if they beat New York on Thursday night and Philadelphia on Saturday. Both games are at Consol Energy Center.
It's not that the Penguins lack motivation. They can secure fourth place in the Eastern Conference and home ice advantage for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by beating the Rangers. If they can do that -- or if the Flyers lose in regulation to Buffalo -- then their Saturday home game against the Flyers would be relatively meaningless.
That's a scenario the Penguins would welcome, if only to give goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
another much-needed day off; he is expected to play in his 66th game of the season Thursday. Three injured players -- forwards James Neal
and Steve Sullivan
(lower-body injuries) and defenseman Matt Niskanen
(upper-body injury) -- also would get another day off. None of the three will play against the Rangers.
"It's not everything, but it's nice, though," captain Sidney Crosby
said of home ice. "It's something that if you have the opportunity to get, you want to get it, I think it's something that's on our mind the last couple of games, making sure we do that. We love playing here and it gives us a lot of energy."
Still, the Penguins are aware they owned the home-ice edge against Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last season and against Montreal in Game 7 of the semifinals the season before, and they lost both games.
To Crosby, that's why it is important for the Penguins to be concentrating on sharpening their game, paying attention to detail and managing the puck well -- and that means cutting down on neutral zone turnovers -- over the next two games.
"We've got to make sure we've got our game and it's where it needs to be," Crosby said. "We dropped a couple of games there to the Islanders and we weren't happy with our play. I think it's just a matter of making sure we're on the right track."
Those home-and-home losses to the Islanders last week blunted the momentum the Penguins generated by going 14-1-1 over the previous 16 games, and cost them any chance of overtaking the Rangers. Pittsburgh won the last two matchups, 2-0 at Consol on Feb. 21 and 5-2 at Madison Square Garden on March 15.
New York isn't entirely without motivation against the Penguins -- the Rangers still can win the Presidents' Trophy for regular season superiority -- so Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
doesn't expect to see a relaxed opponent.
"They've certainly locked their position, the top of the conference. They've locked home ice through the
first, second and third round if they advance that far," Bylsma said. "It would seem like they don't have a lot to play for, but you never know what the case will be. We're anticipating the first-place team in here. This is a team we've been trying to catch and win the last three games against them. Our last one is [Thursday]."
While the Penguins could finish with the second-most points in the conference, they can finish no higher than fourth because division winners automatically claim the top three spots in the playoffs.
The Penguins' likely lineup:
- Evgeni Malkin
- Richard Park
- Jordan Staal
- Tyler Kennedy
- Sidney Crosby
- Pascal Dupuis
- Joe Vitale
- Craig Adams
- Zbynek Michalek
- Paul Martin
- Deryk Engelland
Fleury (41-17-4) would be playing in his 66th game, one off his career high set twice previously. Johnson played and won two of Pittsburgh's previous three games.