The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers are separated by one point in the Eastern Conference standings, but only one team appears prepared for the pressure that comes with the playoffs.
As the Atlantic Division rivals get ready to face off for the final time in the regular season on Saturday at Mellon Arena, the surging Penguins look to salvage a split of the six-game season series with the Rangers, who will try to bounce back from a meltdown against one of the league's doormats.
The sixth-place Penguins (40-27-8) dropped the first three matchups with the seventh-place Rangers (39-27-9) this season, with two coming by shootout and all at Madison Square Garden. However, Pittsburgh has since won twice at home over New York.
On Jan. 18, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 33 shots in a 3-0 victory. Ten days later, Fleury made 32 saves and the Penguins' offense sparkled as Sidney Crosby had a goal and three assists in a five-goal third period of a 6-2 victory.
Heading into this contest, the Penguins captain is simply playing his best hockey of the season. After being held scoreless in a loss to Toronto on Feb. 14, Crosby has put together a 14-game point streak with seven goals and 17 assists.
Crosby is second on the club in scoring with 28 goals and 68 assists. League scoring leader Evgeni Malkin hasn't done much versus the Rangers so far - and the Penguins don't seem to be missing him.
Malkin has 106 points to match his career high set last season, but has notched just two of his league-best 73 assists in five games versus New York. He does have three goals and six assists in a four-game streak, and needs three points to reach 300.
For more than a month, Pittsburgh has been nearly impossible to beat in regulation, going 11-1-2 since Feb. 25. The Penguins bounced back from Sunday's regulation loss to Philadelphia with a 2-0 win over Northwest Division-leading Calgary on Wednesday.
"It's like playoff hockey right now, with how that game was," said Fleury, who made 31 saves for his fourth shutout of 2008-09. "Every goal was big and every save was big."
Kris Letang and Hal Gill scored for the Penguins. Letang had two goals in the last meeting with the Rangers.
"Everyone's contributing right now, that's the big thing," the Penguins' Jordan Staal said. "That's playoff hockey, and that's what we're looking for."
New York opened a two-game swing miserably on Thursday. The Rangers scored three goals less than seven minutes apart in the second period to open a 4-1 lead, but ended up losing 5-4 in a shootout to Atlanta.
"I think we were fortunate to get a point, and we're very fortunate to get that," Rangers coach John Tortorella told the team's official Web site.
Backup Stephen Valiquette made 26 saves through overtime and stopped the first five shots he faced in the tiebreaker before being beaten by Todd White.
"We have to stay up, of course, because we have a big game coming up," Valiquette said. "Nobody wants to get too down and too negative, but tonight wasn't exactly a forward performance for us."
With seven games remaining, the Rangers almost surely will use Henrik Lundqvist the rest of the way, and he must first end his woes in Pittsburgh. He has one win in his last eight visits there, and is 3-7-2 with a 2.81 goals-against average in his career at Pittsburgh.
Nikolai Zherdev, who has four goals in his last five games, has scored a team-high three versus the Penguins.