Winners of six in a row and 21 of 23, the Pittsburgh Penguins have secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff field, leaving nothing significant or tangible to be achieved in the final week of the regular season.
Yes, the Penguins would rather win their final four games, but even if they enter the postseason on a four-game losing streak, they will still be the favorite to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final. Because of the current state of affairs, expect to see some different forward-line and defense-pairing combinations, as coach Dan Bylsma tries to get part-timers like Dustin Jeffrey, Joe Vitale, Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres additional time in an effort to keep them sharp.
That strategy is made easier by the continued injury-related absences of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Paul Martin, all of whom will be out of the lineup Monday night in Ottawa. All four skated with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar on Monday morning in Pittsburgh, but the earliest we’ll see any of them in game action is likely Thursday at New Jersey.
Add Beau Bennett (upper-body injury) and Kris Letang (food poisoning) to the list of missing Penguins for tonight, plus goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whose wife is close to delivering their first child. Expect those three to be questionable tomorrow night when Pittsburgh hosts Buffalo in a rescheduled game.
As for other Penguins thoughts…
- Enough ink has been spilled and pixels spent on Matt Cooke’s interesting last few days, from Jack Edwards’ ill-conceived slander to a Senators fan group planning a mass protest of the Penguins winger during tonight’s game at Scotiabank Place. I’ll just point out the absurdity of the idea that Cooke slashed Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon intentionally, as bizarre as the thought of one-trick thug Steve McIntyre skating another shift in the NHL.
- Speaking of the Senators, they would be wise to focus on beating the Penguins’ ‘B’ team tonight instead of the Cooke-Karlsson hoopla. One look at the standings should remind them of the stakes. According to Sports Club Stats, Ottawa can all but lock up a playoff spot with a win over Pittsburgh, but the Sens are more likely to finish in the East’s No. 8 spot than anywhere else. The prospect of playing the Penguins in the first round should inspire the Senators’ best effort in their final four games.
- Sports Club Stats has the New York Islanders as the Penguins’ second-most probable first-round opponent, even though the Rangers currently occupy the East’s final playoff spot. Both the Isles (8-0-2) and Rangers (7-2-1) have been playing strong hockey in their last 10 games, but any correlation between late-season and playoff success hasn’t been proven. Still, a fourth postseason showdown with Ottawa in seven years seems to be a promising prospect for Pittsburgh at the moment.
- In NHL scoring race news, Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis is just one point behind Sidney Crosby for the league lead, with teammate Steven Stamkos two back of the top. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi hinted today on the Penguins’ HD radio station that Crosby could be back in uniform Thursday night, and he might have to get a couple more points to win the Art Ross Trophy. The Lightning, who will miss the playoffs, have three games left.
- With regards to Crosby’s MVP candidacy, I’m beginning to think he may have to win the scoring title to bring home the Hart this summer. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin has taken the goal-scoring lead (30) and has 51 points, five behind Crosby; with the Capitals surging to a playoff spot, voters may be swayed by recency instead of overall excellence. There’s also some momentum behind the Islanders’ John Tavares (26 goals, 19 assists) and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (.930 save percentage), both of whom have led their teams to breakout seasons. Novelty can be tantalizing to voters as well.