The Pittsburgh Penguins are hoping to withstand yet another absence from Sidney Crosby in order to gain a share of first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.
|"We have to learn from (Tuesday's loss) and start playing playoff hockey," said Penguins center Jordan Staal. "We've got to cut back on the mistakes." (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
To accomplish that, they'll need to beat the conference-worst Tampa Bay Lightning at home for the first time in more than five years as the teams meet Thursday.
The Penguins (41-25-7) are two points behind idle New Jersey, which leads the division and the conference. They each have nine games remaining, including two head-to-head matchups in a four-day span - Saturday at Pittsburgh and Tuesday at New Jersey.
Crosby, the reigning NHL MVP and scoring champion, is expected to be back for Saturday's contest, but he will likely not play for a fourth consecutive game on Thursday and 25th of the last 28 due to a high ankle sprain. The superstar center originally suffered the injury in a 3-0 loss to the Lightning (29-36-8) on Jan. 18.
That defeat was their seventh in a row to Tampa Bay at Mellon Arena, where the Pens haven't beaten the Lightning since a 5-3 victory Nov. 2, 2002. Pittsburgh is 2-10-3 in the last 15 overall matchups.
Pittsburgh hopes to end that skid after struggling without Crosby on Tuesday, allowing three unanswered goals to lose 5-2 to the New York Rangers. That sloppy performance came after scoring 14 goals in winning the previous two games.
"We have to learn from this and start playing playoff hockey," said Penguins center Jordan Staal, who had a goal Tuesday. "We've got to cut back on the mistakes. We got back into the game in the second period but we lost focus, made some bad plays. Next thing you know, it's in the back of the net."
The Penguins - 8-1-3 at home since Crosby got hurt in January - may have Marc-Andre Fleury back in net after he was rested against the Rangers in favor of Ty Conklin, who made 25 saves and "didn't look sharp" according to Pens coach Michel Therrien.
"This time of year your goalie has to be sharp, if you want to win," he said.
Fleury has been impressive in winning four of his last five starts with a 1.81 goals-against average, including a 35-save performance in a 2-0 win at Tampa Bay on March 4. That was the goaltender's first win against the Lightning after going 0-4-3 with a 3.15 GAA in his nine previous games - seven starts.
|Vincent Lecavalier has seven goals in his last five games but is scoreless against Pittsburgh this year. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
He's 0-2-3 with a 3.47 GAA in five home starts against the Lightning.
Evgeni Malkin is looking for a bounce-back performance. The center was held without a point by the Rangers after posting three goals and five assists during a three-game winning streak, and has been held pointless in five of the Penguins' last six defeats. Malkin has found the net in each of the two wins against Tampa Bay this season, while being kept off the scoresheet in the loss.
The Lightning, who have an East-low 66 points, are looking to rebound from a disappointing 7-4 loss to Buffalo on Wednesday that snapped a three-game winning streak. They squandered a three-goal, third-period lead to the Sabres by allowing six goals in a 14:51 span.
"Everything just went their way," said Lightning goaltender Karri Ramo, who made 25 saves, but received little support in the third period when the Lightning were outshot 16-4. "Everything just went in the net."
Vincent Lecavalier - Tampa's leader with 39 goals and 88 points - had two goals against Buffalo and seven in his last five games. The center, though, has been held pointless in three season meetings with Pittsburgh after scoring 21 goals in the previous 27 matchups.