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Penguins Hope to Continue Atlantic Division Success

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Mike Rupp and the Penguins are 15-0-2 in their past 17 home games against the Rangers.

Credit - Getty Images
With the Penguins talking all week about using the current three-game homestand leading into the Olympic break as the impetus to another strong finish to the regular season when play resumes in March, Pittsburgh could not have asked for two better foes at the outset of the stretch – a pair of division rivals in the New York Islanders and Rangers.

Following the Penguins’ 3-1 victory over the Islanders on Wednesday night to begin the homstand, Pittsburgh has now amassed an 11-6 record inside the Atlantic Division, including an 11-2 mark against the Islanders, Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.

“It’s obviously given us a boost – not giving (those teams) an edge,” Jordan Staal said. “Again, you can tell those are rivalry games for our team as well. Everyone always seems to have an extra kick for those ones.”

Pittsburgh should certainly have an extra kick on Friday as they welcome in a Rangers squad they have dominated over the past three seasons, especially at Mellon Arena.

Including the Penguins’ five-game defeat of New York in the 2008 postseason, Pittsburgh has posted a 15-0-2 unbeaten streak against the Rangers at the Igloo since the Rangers last win on Jan. 28, 2006. The Penguins are currently on a seven-game winning streak against New York, the longest winning streak either team has ever posted against one another in the all-time series.

“It is always a big matchup against them,” Staal said. “It’s always a good rivalry when we play them here. It seems like everyone is up for those games. That’s been big for us.”

Not only do the Rangers have to deal with having not won in Pittsburgh since the middle of George W. Bush’s second term in the White House, an 0-4 record against the Penguins thus far this year and an average of 1.8 goals per game over their past 10 contests, but they might be without the services of Marian Gaborik, who ranks fourth in the league with 35 goals, after he suffered a thigh laceration earlier in the week.

“I’m not sure if Gaborik will be able to play (Friday),” Pascal Dupuis said. “He is their leading scorer so if he is out it is a plus for that. We can’t take them lightly. … It’s a game we have to win.”

Besides further extending their recent domination of New York, a victory on Friday would allow the Penguins to move closer to reaching another one of their goals – surpassing the New Jersey Devils for first place in the Atlantic Division.

“Yeah, (the standings) are right there on the board in the lounge,” Dupuis said. “We do look at it. We know we have to win some games because we have some teams who are creeping up right now.”
 
As of Thursday just one point separates the two teams, as New Jersey holds a 75-74 advantage over the Penguins. The Devils also have two games before the break – a home contest against Nashville on Friday and a visit to Carolina on Saturday. If the Penguins can win each of their next two games, and New Jersey slips up at all, the Penguins will go into the two-week recess knowing they possess the inside track as they look to take the division crown for the second time in three seasons.

“That would be huge going into the break,” Dupuis said. “We can’t look at just these two games. We have to look at the big picture. These would be great games to win but we do have hockey left after the break.”

“If we get on top (of the division), we can’t be satisfied being there,” Ruslan Fedotenko said. “We have to keep working to improve our game. It is not about where we are, but rather finding our game and playing the best we can.”

Over the past three seasons the Penguins have had no trouble at all finding their game, particularly against divisional foes.

Dating back to the 2006-07 campaign, Pittsburgh is an impressive 20-8-4 against the Atlantic Division from February through the end of the season, a gaudy winning percentage of .688.

Forward Mike Rupp, who has played a majority of his career in the Atlantic Division, says taking care of business within the division, especially down the stretch when the games take on even more precedence, sends a message to those teams and the rest of the conference heading into the postseason.

Pittsburgh is 4-0-1 against the New Jersey Devils in the months of March and April over the past three seasons.
Credit - Getty Images
“We aren’t playing the division games as much as we used to but you are still playing those teams six times each,” he said. “That is 24 games – a substantial amount of your schedule.

“When you are playing teams that many times you want to send a message and let them know those games are important and you are going to put stress on those games. I think it is important we do well in those games.”

Dupuis agreed with Rupp’s take.

“Those are games you have to win,” Dupuis said. “They are the games you have to win to make the playoffs. Those are four-point games so as long as you win and they don’t, you stay ahead of them in the standings.”

Four-point games also help teams in their quest to pass the clubs who sit in front of them. During a six-day stretch in mid-March, the Penguins will have two of these such matchups against New Jersey, both at the Prudential Center.

“We still have a few games left against New Jersey,” Rupp, who played five seasons in New Jersey before signing with Pittsburgh, said. “That is a team that is in our division that we want to beat.”

While New Jersey might be the one team from the Atlantic the Penguins have struggled against – the Devils have won all four meetings to date – recent history proves Pittsburgh should feel confident when the puck is dropped on March 12 and 17.

The Penguins have an unbeaten steak of 4-0-1 against the Devils in the months of March and April the past three seasons. They trounced New Jersey, 6-1, on April 1 of last season, and used a 7-1 victory at Mellon Arena on March 22, 2008 to overtake the Devils for the division lead in a race the Penguins eventually won.

Pittsburgh has also fared quite well in the Garden State over the past three seasons, posting a 4-2-2 record. And, although it won’t happen again this season, the Penguins have claimed the season series over the Devils in back-to-back years (4-3-1 in ’07-08; 3-1-2 in ’08-09).

Rupp believes if the Penguins can replicate some of that late-season inter-division success again this season, the team will be picking up their fair share of wins in March and April.

“I think when you put your stress on the division and you win those games, it can definitely carry over because it seems like you are playing those teams once a week so that play carries over to the other games,” Rupp said. “If you can really focus on your division then you are setting yourself up to be in a really good position in the end.”



 






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