Some teams, with a playoff spot clinched, might try to get some of their A-list players some rest in a final regular-season game. Let one or two sit, cut the minutes of others. The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t feel they can afford to do that. Nor do they want to when the New York Rangers visit PPG Paints Arena for the regular-season finale Saturday.
The Penguins wrapped up a spot in the playoffs, which begin next week, with a 4-1 win Thursday against Detroit, but a lot is left unsettled, and the Penguins feel the pull to try to dictate – as much as they can – what their playoff lot will be.
The Penguins are in third place in the Metropolitan Division, and that’s where they could finish, which would mean facing the New York Islanders in the first round next week and starting on the road. But depending on what they, the Islanders (at Washington) and the Carolina Hurricanes (at Philadelphia) do Saturday, they could also displace the Islanders and earn home-ice advantage against them. They also could fall into the top wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and face Washington, the division champion, in the first round.
“I think we still have a lot to play for,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’ve been in a playoff mindset here for a month-plus, and there’s still a lot on the table to play for. In my opinion, we’ve got a great opportunity. I think we’ve got to maximize it.”
So, for instance, it would not be a surprise for goaltender Matt Murray to make an 11th straight start Saturday, and for defenseman Zach Trotman to be a healthy scratch. There isn’t an extra healthy forward right now after Adam Johnson was returned to the American Hockey League, so it appears the same 12 from Thursday will dress against the Rangers.
Sullivan said center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, who returned Thursday from injuries, “responded fine” and “feel strong,” but it would seem doubtful that defenseman Brian Dumoulin will play Saturday. He has not resumed skating.
The Rangers, who have lost three straight games and are out of the playoffs, will be wrapping up their season. They haven’t had meaningful games – beyond pride, playing to impress management or boost individual stats – for a while.
But there is the spoiler role.
The Rangers can’t be expected to roll over, even while playing on back-to-back nights. They nearly prevented the Columbus Blue Jackets from clinching a playoff spot Friday, scoring with six seconds left in regulation before losing in a shootout.
The Penguins, conversely, were desperate to sew up a playoff spot for weeks, and that has led to a sort of pre-playoffs mode of playing, one that now shifts slightly to playing for the best possible seeding.
“I think we’ve had to play that way for so long that at this point I think that’s the mentality that we go with, and that’s a good thing,” said team captain Sidney Crosby, who is two points shy of reaching 100, while the team is one point shy of that mark. “I think (playing that desperate style) is something that helps when you’re going into the playoffs. It’s one more game and an opportunity to move up, so I think there’s a lot of motivation.”
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson figured it helps that there’s not a one-game lull in a stretch of games with a lot on the line.
“They’ve been serious games lately,” he said. “Everything has meant something. For it to be that way (against the Rangers) is huge in terms of preparation for what’s to come.
“There’s a lot of different scenarios that can happen. At the end of the day, we’ve got to come and control what we can control. We get two points, we can potentially get home-ice advantage, which is huge.”