The Pittsburgh Penguins grabbed a narrow lead atop the Eastern Conference with their latest win, but that race figures to continue well into the season's final week.
The Atlantic Division, however, is theirs for the taking.
Pittsburgh will look to clinch its first division title in 10 years on Monday when it closes out a home-and-home series with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
The Penguins (46-26-7) took a one-point lead over Montreal in the race for home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs on Sunday, beating the Rangers 3-1.
|Sidney Crosby and the Penguins can clinch an Atlantic Division title for the first time in 10 years with a win or a regulation loss by the second-place Devils. Pittsburgh wraps up their season series with the Rangers tonight at MSG. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh has a six-point cushion over the New Jersey Devils in the Atlantic with three games to play. One win or one regulation loss by the Devils in their final four games will give the Penguins their first division title since 1997-98.
With the standings so tight atop the conference, however, Pittsburgh's players feel like their postseason has already begun.
"I can't wait for about 10 days, to start this thing (the playoffs)," said center Max Talbot, who scored in the final minute on Sunday. "It's good that it's all (division) games like this until the end of the season. Every little play can change the game and that's playoff hockey, and that's what we're in right now."
The Penguins got two assists Sunday from Sidney Crosby, who was playing his second game since returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for 28 of the previous 31 games. Crosby and Marian Hossa - acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline - completed a game on the same line for the first time as teammates.
"Yeah, it's been kind of tough," said Crosby, who assisted on Hossa's goal. "But we're going to continue to get better, I think. The chemistry's there, we've just got to make sure we take advantage of our chances."
The offensive skills of Crosby, Hossa and 100-point scorer Evgeni Malkin have nearly been overshadowing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's outstanding play. Fleury has won his last seven starts while posting a 1.14 goals-against average.
"Every puck seems to be hitting him," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "He's really carrying us right now."
With four games left, the Rangers (40-27-11) can still finish anywhere from the fourth spot in the crowded East - which would give them home-ice advantage for a playoff series for the first time since 1995-96 - to out of the playoffs entirely.
New York's loss in Pittsburgh was just the third time it had lost in regulation in its last 21 games, and penalties played a key role. The Rangers took eight, allowing the Penguins to spend a good portion of the game on the power play.
"What we don't want to do is have the power play suck the life out of you," New York coach Tom Renney said.
Scoring has been a problem for the Rangers all season - only two Eastern Conference teams have scored fewer than their 203 goals.
They're 5-3-2 over their last 10 games, but have put up just 18 goals in that stretch, including a combined two by Brendan Shanahan and Chris Drury, who are tied for the team lead with 23 goals apiece.
Henrik Lundqvist has been stellar in net, however. He's 6-3-1 with a 1.76 GAA in his last 10 starts.
Lundqvist has been in goal for all seven games against Pittsburgh this season, going 4-3-0 with a 2.00 GAA. The Rangers have won all three games against the Penguins at Madison Square Garden, outscoring them 13-4.