PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are discovering how difficult it can be to make a push in the standings at a time when the schedule is winding down, the Stanley Cup Playoffs aren't far away and every game is vitally important.
The Penguins carried a seven-game winning streak into their game against division-leading Florida on Friday night, yet they have gained only four points on the New York Rangers, who lead both the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division. And the Philadelphia Flyers are only two points behind them.
If Pittsburgh is to somehow catch the Rangers over their final 16 games, they almost certainly have to sweep their two remaining games, Thursday at Madison Square Garden and April 5 at Consol Energy Center.
But it will take more than that. That's why coach Dan Bylsma's message to his players, in essence, is it's playoff time now.
"I think we know how hard it is to move," Bylsma said Friday. "It's hard to move six points, let alone 10 points. I think we understand that. When we were 10 points behind, we knew we would play them three more times and we knew the only chance we'd have is to win all six points and not give them any points in those games. … We still have our eyes set on them. We know right where they're at. We know how difficult it's going to be. We know we have to win our two games against them for it to be a possibility."
The Penguins also understand they need to keep focused and not be distracted by the seemingly impending return of superstar Sidney Crosby, who is practicing daily as he mends from a recurrence of concussion-like symptoms. Crosby could return as early as Sunday against the Boston Bruins, but might wait until the Penguins go on a three-game Atlantic Division road trip next week.
"For the most part, we don't change the way we are playing. I think that's the biggest strength of our team," forward Matt Cooke said. "It's enabled us to get through with injuries to Sid, (Kris) Letang and a few others."
Bylsma is being forced to juggle his lineup, especially his defensive pairings, on a nearly game-by-game basis. Defensemen Kris Letang (concussion symptoms) and Deryk Engelland (undisclosed injury) already were out, and defenseman Paul Martin (undisclosed illness) didn't take part in the morning skate.
Because Martin might not play, defenseman Simon Despres was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL), four days after defenseman Brian Strait was recalled. Despres would take Martin's spot on the second power-play unit.
The likely Penguins lineup:
Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Steve Sullivan - Jordan Staal - Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cooke - Joe Vitale - Tyler Kennedy
Arron Asham - Craig Adams - Richard Park
Brooks Orpik - Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen - Simon Despres
Ben Lovejoy - Brian Strait
Marc-Andre Fleury, riding a six-game winning streak, will be back in net after backup Brad Thiessen won for the second time in as many NHL starts, beating Toronto 3-2 on Wednesday. Brent Johnson remains out with an undisclosed injury. Fleury is 8-6 against Florida.