Penguins face devilish task tonight
Friday, February 16, 2007
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With a victory tonight at New Jersey or one point from an overtime or shootout loss, the Penguins will leapfrog Atlanta for the third-highest point total in the Eastern Conference.
But in terms of playoff positioning, the Penguins won't budge from the fourth spot in the conference no matter the final score.
The Penguins have hit a ceiling, and the only way to crash through it and grab one of the top three playoff seeds is to win the Atlantic Division. The three division champions in each conference get preference over other teams, even if they have fewer points.
A division title and top-three seeding one year after finishing last in the Eastern Conference and 29th overall among the 30 NHL clubs might seem a bit farfetched, but it looks to be within reach for the Penguins.
"That's not an unrealistic goal," defenseman Mark Eaton said yesterday after practice at Southpointe.
The Penguins, Southeast Division leader Atlanta and Ottawa each have 69 points, although the Penguins have played fewer games. The only teams above them in the conference are Atlantic Division leader New Jersey with 76 points and Northeast Division leader Buffalo, which had 80 points going into its game last night against Edmonton.
That gives the red-hot Penguins 26 games to make up the seven points separating them from the Devils -- and they have their remaining four games against the Devils over the next four weeks, plus a game in hand on New Jersey.
"If we can win three out of four or all four of them, we're right there," Eaton said. "There's a lot of hockey left."
The Penguins are 1-3 against New Jersey this season, including 0-2 on the road, but they have not faced the Devils since Dec. 26, which was during a five-game losing streak and before they started their 12-0-2 tear.
New Jersey didn't climb to the top of the Atlantic Division and to within four points of the conference lead without some good stretches and it's on a couple now. The Devils have won five of their past six games and 16 of their past 22.
"During our streak, we beat some really good hockey teams," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "I'm excited to play that game to see where we stand against a team that has the best goalie in the league [in Martin Brodeur], that is really disciplined, and they play really well in their system."
Penguins winger Ryan Malone is cautious about talk of a division championship.
"That sounds great, but we have no control over how they're going to play the rest of the year, or anyone else for that matter, so we have to make sure we're ready to go every night," he said. "We're in control of our own destiny."
Therrien likes riding the wave of speculation over whether the team could make such a huge one-season jump to become a division winner.
But he's doing his best to keep eyes in the back of his head, too.
"It's fun. We don't have any problem with [division title talk]," Therrien said. "We've kind of surprised a lot of people because we were saying our goal is -- and it still is -- to battle and make the playoffs. That's our focus. We're looking ahead, but at the same time we know what's going on behind us."
Although the 14-game unbeaten streak and its 26 points have lifted the Penguins into a tie for fourth in the conference, things are nearly as tight now up and down the standings as they were earlier.
Before last night, Toronto and the New York Islanders were tied for ninth place in the conference, one spot below the playoff cutoff, with 62 points. They were as close to the Penguins as the Penguins are to New Jersey.
"You'd think we would be a lot more comfortable in a playoff spot, but we're not that far ahead of those teams," Eaton said. "New Jersey is the team we want to catch, so this game will be a test."
The fact that the game is against not just a division rival but also the team that stands in the way of a possible division title makes for an interesting subplot, center and NHL leading scorer Sidney Crosby said.
"They're all important, but there's probably a little more importance on this one," he said. "I think we're going to be intense, and it's going to be an emotional game. We'll have to prepare accordingly.
"We're still taking a game at a time, and I think that's why we've been so successful. You can't get the division title with the next win. We're just chipping away right now. Somewhere that would be a nice place to be, but we need to [make up the gap in] points to do that."