The Pittsburgh Penguins are locked into the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, on a collision course with the higher-finishing of two wildcards, likely the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets. The Boston Bruins, who clinched the top spot with a win over the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday, will meet the eighth-place finisher.
With nothing of consequence to play for until the postseason begins next week, Pittsburgh can afford to treat the final week-plus of regular-season play as a sort of exhibition schedule, trying out combinations and resting some bumped-and-bruised regulars. It’s a welcome opportunity for the Penguins, who have lost more than 500 man-games to injury this season – more than any other team, and more than any season in their own franchise history.
“I’d love to [play every game], but I think I’ve played more than 82 at this point if you’re counting every one [including the Olympics], so I’m OK with that,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who missed his first of the season when he and linemate Chris Kunitz were among those who sat out the team’s 3-2 shootout win in Colorado Sunday. “I think most important is that you feel good at the right time, and it’s playoffs, so you have to be smart.”
That win over a strong Avalanche team – which included a couple of recent recalls from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – not only showed character after an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Minnesota the night before, but highlighted the depth of a Penguins’ organization that has relied all year on a rotating cast of players.
“That was big,” said defenseman Paul Martin, who returned last week after missing 43 games this season with two major injuries. “I think it’s a testament to the team that we have and the depth that we have in the organization. We’ve had some star players out for long periods of time, so to be able to win games no matter who’s in or out of the lineup compliments everyone, from the way they put the team together to the coaches to the players playing the system. They’re getting the job done.”
For the Penguins, who will host the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators over a five-day stretch to end the regular season, now is the time to get back to getting the job done. After building a comfortable lead over the first half of the season that helped them win the Metropolitan Division, they’ve limped to a 10-9-2 record since the Olympics and have particularly struggled at home. After being nearly unbeatable on CONSOL Energy Center ice at 23-4-1 prior to the break, they’ve gone 4-5-1 since.
“I feel like this is an important week to make sure we’re playing the right way,” Crosby said. “I think you’re trying to prepare for the playoffs, and we’ve had some games that have allowed us to do that, and some other games where we probably haven’t played quite desperate enough.
“I think that’s something in the last week that shouldn’t be too hard to find. With the practice time we’re going to get this week and the rest and also the teams we’re playing, I think the intensity should be pretty high.”
The intensity should certainly be high Wednesday against Detroit. If the Red Wings weren’t already enough of a rival after facing the Penguins in the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, there’s the fact that this week’s game could help to determine whether Pittsburgh meets them in the first round.
“We all realize that that result could have something to do with who we play,” Crosby said. “I honestly didn’t think about playing them; I thought it would be in the Finals if we saw them again but obviously, with them coming to the East, it was a possibility.
“I think both teams play pretty similar – a pretty fast game, play with skill. There was a lot of intensity in the last [meeting, a 5-4 overtime loss on March 20], maybe a little grittier than previous games. It looked a lot more like the playoff series the last time. I think they’re playing pretty good hockey right now, and playing them in the Stanley Cup Finals a couple of times only adds to that intensity.”
Wednesday’s meeting might also give an opportunity to send a message if the Penguins and Red Wings do face off in the first round, although Pittsburgh is more concerned about refining its own game than its potential playoff opponents.
“I think we have to be playing some of our best hockey come playoff time, no matter who we’re playing,” Martin said. “If it is Detroit, I think you want to send the message that we’re going to be tough to play against and playing well. [There’s] nothing we would want to do any different.”
“You’re following a lot closer now; there’s some tight races going on that will be decided this week, so it’s pretty easy to want to watch and see what’s going on,” Crosby said. “I don’t think I’ve ever given a preference [of opponent]; I think you just get ready to play and compete and worry about your own team.”