PENGUINS (45-24-8) at LIGHTNING (41-24-11)
TV: FS-P (HD), SUN (HD)
Pittsburgh 7-3-0; Tampa Bay 4-3-3
Fourth and final meeting of the season. The home team has won all three games. The Lightning recorded a 5-3 victory on Oct. 27, but Pittsburgh responded with a pair of blowouts at the Consol Energy Center, outscoring Tampa Bay 13-2 over the two games. Marc-Andre Fleury
has a 2.01 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in three starts for the Penguins.
Penguins GM Ray Shero said Wednesday that captain Sidney Crosby
will be rejoining the team for morning skates beginning Thursday. While this might have raised hope No. 87 could be back in the lineup by the time the puck drops on Game 1 of the postseason, Shero clarified that Crosby has not been cleared for full practices with the team and said there was still no timetable for the superstar's return. Shero added that while he didn't want to kill anyone's optimism, it could very well be that Crosby doesn't return to the lineup until next season.
Pittsburgh's hopes of winning the Atlantic Division and capturing a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference took a blow after Tuesday's 5-2 home loss to Philadelphia, but the Penguins are still in good position to claim home ice for at least the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They lead the Lightning by five points heading into Thursday's action, though Tampa Bay does hold a game in hand.
"I don't think that we play hockey to win the division. We play hockey to win the playoffs," forward Maxime Talbot said. "I never celebrated winning the season."
It's a big game for Tampa Bay, which could very well end up facing Pittsburgh in the 4-5 matchup to open the playoffs. After getting manhandled in their previous two matchups, the Lightning want to prove they won't be an easy out once the second season begins. Martin St. Louis
and Dominic Moore
made sure they took care of business Tuesday against the Senators, as each player scored twice and Steven Stamkos
sealed the 5-2 victory with an empty-netter.
"We're back to our mentality and I think we're back to what we've done all year," Moore said. "That's deserving victories and deserving results."
Who's hot: Chris Kunitz
has 4 goals and 6 assists in his last eight games for the Penguins, while Tyler Kennedy
has 4 goals and 4 assists over the same span. … Vincent Lecavalier
has 2 goals and 5 assists during a five-game points streak for the Lightning. Simon Gagne (4-2-6) and St. Louis (3-3-6) have three-game points streaks going. Moore has 4 goals in as many games.
Crosby, who last played on Jan. 5 due to a concussion, remains on injured reserve for the time being along with forwards Evgeni Malkin
(knee) and Nick Johnson
(upper body). Forwards Eric Tangradi
(concussion) and Dustin Jeffrey
(knee surgery) are out indefinitely. … Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone
(abdominal) is on injured reserve, while defenseman Randy Jones (ankle) is out indefinitely.
At the time he came out of the lineup, Crosby's 32 goals in 41 games led the NHL -- now he's tied for ninth, though his percentage of 0.78 goals per game is still by far the best in the League. Stamkos briefly reclaimed a tie for the lead in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, netting his 44th to draw even with Anaheim's Corey Perry, though Stamkos has just 4 goals in his last 22 games. Perry jumped back in front with a pair of goals on Wednesday.
The Lightning can assure themselves of their first trip to the playoffs since 2007 by defeating the Penguins.