Numbers add up to difficult opponent for Penguins

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The numbers say it still is possible.

That the Penguins not only could make up the 10-point gap separating them from the New York Rangers, who will visit Consol Energy Center tonight, but actually could end up 36 in front of the Rangers.

All it would take is for the Penguins to finish the season on a 23-0 roll, while New York loses its final 25 games.

So, yeah, it's possible.

Scouting report
  • Matchup: New York Rangers at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
  • TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Henrik Lundqvist for Rangers.
  • Penguins: Are 6-5 in past 11 home games. ... C Evgeni Malkin's next assist will be his 300th. ... Have scored three short-handed goals in past six games, while allowing just one power-play goal.
  • Rangers: Have gone 9-2-1 in past 12 games. ... RW Ryan Callahan's next goal will be his 100th in NHL. ... Are 7-2-2 in past 11 games against Penguins.
  • Hidden stat: Rangers are league-best 28-1-2 when scoring first goal of game.

Anyone willing to indulge in that kind of mathematical alchemy probably shouldn't be preparing tax returns for a living, though.

For while no one -- not the Penguins or Philadelphia or New Jersey -- is ready to concede first place in the Atlantic Division, let alone the Eastern Conference, to New York, none of those clubs likely has placed an order for a banner just yet, either.

"It gets tough," Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz said. "We have them a few times and you can say those are four-point swings, but we still have to win the other games.

"They've been one of the best teams in the league for a reason. They've been doing it all year. We'd need for them to falter before we could do it.

"But we still have to turn this around. We've been playing, I think, a little better than .500 hockey since Christmas. We have to be better as a team."

Faltering, it should be noted, is one of the few things New York hasn't done well this season. The Rangers have lost consecutive games in regulation just twice, and not since Dec. 13-15.

That means the chances of them dropping a few dozen in a row probably aren't so good.

While there are plenty of reasons for the Rangers' success, the primary one is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who looks to be Evgeni Malkin's main competition for the Hart Trophy as league MVP this season.

Lundqvist ranks first in the league in save percentage (.940) and shutouts (7) and second in goals-against average (1.77), and his consistent excellence gives his teammates the confidence to play the aggressive style preached by coach John Tortorella.

And lately, Lundqvist has elevated his game beyond its usual rarefied level. He is 8-1, with a 1.20 goals-against average and .955 save percentage in his past nine appearances.

The Penguins, though, got the better of Lundqvist the previous time they played New York, putting 3 of 35 shots behind him in a 4-1 victory Jan. 19 at Madison Square Garden.

Replicating their performance that night won't be easy, but it certainly provides a template for defeating New York, something few teams have managed in the past four-plus months.

"We were really hard to play against that game," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "We were really stingy, didn't give up a whole lot. We just made it a hard game on them.

"They never really got a whole lot of offensive flow and we scored a couple of key goals at the right time. It was a good overall team game for us."

The Penguins have had more than a few of those this season. Their problem has come when they've tried to string a few together.

There was a pretty impressive eight-game winning streak in January, but that came in the wake of six consecutive losses.

The simple truth is that for the most part, the Penguins have struggled to produce 60 strong minutes, let alone a series of quality games.

Poor starts have been a recurring problem -- never mind that they won three consecutive home games in which the visitors were spotted a 2-0 lead -- and inconsistency has been an issue for long enough that it has become a serious concern.

"It's something the guys in the locker room, and the coaches, have been talking about," center Jordan Staal said. "We have to find a way every night to play consistently throughout our whole game."

This probably would be a good night for the Penguins to do that, considering how the Rangers can overrun opponents whose games are out of sync.

"They're a team that's going to keep coming at you, and we have to be ready for that," Bylsma said. "If you can't execute and you're not ready for that, they will be on you and they will turn over pucks and then we see their skill and their top lines take over and be effective."

And if that happens, the Atlantic Division numbers will add up to something even more bleak for the Penguins than they do already.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Dave Molinari: and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published February 21, 2012 5:00 AM


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