The Pittsburgh Penguins’ chances of finishing on top of the Eastern Conference took a hit Tuesday, as they watched a 2-1 lead evaporate into a 5-2 loss against Philadelphia. The first-place Flyers now have 102 points to Pittsburgh’s 98, with a game in hand.
With the season winding down, the Penguins look increasingly likely to end the year right where they’ve spent a majority of it, at No. 2 in the Atlantic Division and No. 4 in the conference. That puts Pittsburgh on a first-round collision course with the No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning, and it makes Thursday’s game in Tampa an opportunity to scout the opponent and set a tone.
“It’s not just game 78; we understand it’s a very likely first-round matchup,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “It will change some things about the way we coach, the way we play the game and the way we go into it. Also, we may want to see how they react to some things we do, just to see how some of the matchups might be in the playoffs. So there will be a fair amount of things that will be significant about the game.”
“It’s good that we have a chance to play them at the end of the season and, hopefully, let them know what we’re all about,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think it goes both ways; we don’t know everything about them, so that should help us.”
As far as matchups go, a battle between Pittsburgh and Tampa would figure to be an exciting one, with offensive talent like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier facing off against Kris Letang, James Neal, Alexei Kovalev and – just maybe – the guy who joined the Penguins for Thursday’s morning skate in Tampa.
“It’s pretty cool,” Fleury said of seeing his team’s captain, Sidney Crosby, skate with his teammates for the first time since suffering a concussion in early January. “I think, first, we’re just happy for him. It seems like he’s been having fun and smiling, so that’s great. Hopefully, this keeps getting better and he’ll join the team when he’s ready.”
The 23-year-old Crosby was on pace for his best season yet when he was sidelined, and Pittsburgh would love to have his offense in the lineup against the Lightning’s highly skilled forwards. But regardless of whether their captain can return for the first round of the playoffs – or at all this year – the Penguins will focus on playing the same way that’s led to success in the regular season.
“It’s tough when you have a lot of talent that plays on the opposing team, but we’ve been doing a good job not spending too much time in our own end,” said defenseman Paul Martin. “That’s not just the defensemen but the forwards, too, and Flower [Fleury] has been playing great.
“Hopefully we realize how important that is, to get out of our D zone as quickly as we can. With those talented guys, the less time they have with the puck in there, the better. And, hopefully, we’ll be disciplined and stay out of the box, and that’ll give us a chance.”
To give themselves a chance Thursday – and going forward – the Penguins first need to address the lapses that cost them against the Flyers.
“What we have to focus on is how we play, and make sure we fix the mistakes we made,” Kovalev said. “Those are the kinds of things we have to work on before the playoffs start because, in the playoffs, those mistakes would cost us.”
And, although the Penguins aren’t conceding the division and conference to the Flyers just yet, a successful playoff run would go a long way toward making them feel better about ending up in the No. 4 spot.
“There’s still hope there; we’re still going to try to win these games,” said forward Max Talbot. “But, at the same time, I never celebrated winning the season. It’s not something you grow up and think about. We’re trying to get better and get ready for the playoffs.”