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Penguins continue battle for playoff positioning

by Brian Hunter
DEVILS (36-37-5) at PENGUINS (46-25-8)


Last 10:
New Jersey 4-5-1; Pittsburgh 7-3-0

Season series: Sixth and final meeting of the season between these Atlantic Division rivals. Pittsburgh won the first two, New Jersey answered with a pair of victories, and the Penguins regained the edge with a 1-0 on March 25 in a game where both Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Brodeur were perfect for 65 minutes. James Neal's shootout goal finally decided things in favor of the home team.

Big story: The Penguins still have a chance to finish first in the division and the Eastern Conference, three points behind both the Flyers and Capitals with three games remaining for each team. However, they're only one point ahead of the Lightning for fifth, so hanging onto home ice for the first round remains the immediate focus.

Team Scope:

Devils: For the first time in over two decades, New Jersey will play a regular-season game having already been eliminated from playoff contention. When the Devils last missed the playoffs in 1996, it came after they lost to the Senators in their final regular-season game. Prior to that, they missed the postseason in 1989, finishing 14 points behind the Flyers in the Patrick Division. The dream of a miracle second-half comeback finally ended with Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Canadiens.

"We knew it was going to come," Brodeur said. "It doesn't come as a shocker, really. We had a good run, we played really hard to get ourselves in a position to compete for the last 10 games or 15 games or so and try to get into the playoffs. It was just too much. We've got four more games to just try to keep on doing what we're doing, try to play hard and get some wins."

Penguins: A win over Tampa Bay last Thursday would have put the Lightning in the rearview mirror, but Pittsburgh's one-goal loss made Saturday's Florida follow-up against the Panthers all the more important for the Penguins. Fortunately, after trailing 2-1 through 20 minutes, they responded on a Pascal Dupuis goal early in the second period and scores from Zbynek Michalek and Craig Adams in the third for a 4-2 victory that allowed them to maintain the fourth seed.

"We control our own destiny," Dupuis said. "We needed to win some games and this one was an important one. It's a big two points."

Who's hot: Patrik Elias (3-2-5), Ilya Kovalchuk (2-2-4) and Dainius Zubrus (0-3-3) have three-game points streaks going for the Devils. … As a team, the Penguins have been lethal in shootouts, setting an NHL record by winning four straight games via the penalty-shot tiebreaker from March 21-27. They've won their last five shootouts overall. Neal is 3-for-4 and Alex Kovalev 3-for-5 -- each has two shootout-deciding goals.

Injury report: New Jersey defenseman Colin White has missed the last four games and defenseman Anton Volchenkov has missed three of the last four with lower-body injuries. … Pittsburgh forwards Arron Asham (lower body) and Eric Tangradi (concussion) practiced Monday. Forwards Nick Johnson (upper body) and Sidney Crosby (concussion) skated earlier in the day.

Stat pack: Zach Parise returned for the Devils on Saturday and had two shots in just over 16 minutes of action against the Canadiens in his first game since Oct. 30. Parise had knee surgery three days later. … Michalek has 4 goals in his last 12 games after not scoring one in his first 58 games with the Penguins.

Puck drop:
Defenseman Brooks Orpik summed up Pittsburgh's mindset over the final week of the regular season and whether catching Philadelphia is still part of the mindset.

"I think you do. But sometimes you need help from other teams. You just kind of control what you can control," he said. "With the situation we're in with Tampa, we can control that destiny. Against Philly, we need help. That one, I don't think you put as much focus into. If you win your games and Philly happens to lose, then that's great, but it's out of our control."

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