BOSTON -- The Penguins were a popular choice to finish first in the Eastern Conference this season.
They should have been, too.
A club that issues paychecks twice a month to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, among others, has to be viewed a serious threat to accomplish just about anything.
But simply locking up the No. 1 seed in a conference is not the same as doing it with a week left in the regular season.
Not even close.
Especially not in a 48-game season, when it seems more likely that the conference champion would be decided in the final few shifts of the final few games.
But the Penguins' 3-2 victory against Boston Saturday at the TD Garden assured that they will finish ahead of the rest of the Eastern pack, even if they go 0-4 in their remaining games.
That seems a bit unlikely, given that they've won six games in a row and are 21-2 -- yes, 21-2 -- in their past 23.
That they've gotten on such a roll despite missing Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Paul Martin and James Neal for significant stretches in recent weeks only adds luster to what they've achieved.
"I think it says a lot for our team and how we played through this shortened season," coach Dan Bylsma said. "With different types of injuries and different people in our lineup."
Aside from a long-shot opportunity to overtake Chicago for first place in the overall standings, the Penguins will have nothing of great consequence at stake in their final four regular-season games, beginning with one Monday night in Ottawa.
As a result, players who have spent a lot of game nights in street clothes can expect to be rotated into the lineup on occasion in the coming week.
"There will be, maybe, a couple of opportunities to have different lineups as we go [through] the next four games," Bylsma said.
Part of the reason Bylsma will have that luxury is the production he has gotten from players general manager Ray Shero added as the NHL trade deadline approached.
A couple played prominent roles in the victory Saturday. Jarome Iginla scored the power-play goal that broke a 1-1 tie at 4:43 of the third period and Jussi Jokinen not only scored a goal and set up two others, but annoyed and distracted Boston throughout the game with his feisty style.
Jokinen, who was donated by Carolina a few hours before the deadline -- remember, he cost only a conditional late-round draft choice and is having part of his salary picked up by the Hurricanes -- has four goals in six games since being acquired and agreed that he's playing his best hockey of the season lately.
So good, in fact, that he's exceeded even the lofty expectations Bylsma had for him.
"What I didn't know was maybe how intelligent of a hockey player he was and how he could step in in different situations and contribute," Bylsma said. "He's certainly been a factor in an awful lot of games for us."
That Iginla would be a difference-maker surprises no one. It's why the Bruins made a strong push to acquire him from Calgary and why, after Iginla chose the Penguins over Boston, the Garden crowd booed him so often and so vigorously Saturday.
"I expected that, and it's not too bad when it's on the road," Iginla said. "On the road, you can live with that. At home, when you're getting booed bad, that's hard to take."
Fans at Consol Energy Center, where the Penguins have rallied from a slow start to put up a 17-5 record, haven't had much cause to be hostile toward the home team lately.
That could change, however, if they stumble there in the playoffs.
Unlikely as that might seem for a team surging the way the Penguins are, it should be remembered that they are 4-7 on home ice during their past three playoff series, all of which they lost to lower-seeded opponents.
The start of the game Saturday, when Boston fed off the emotion generated during a pregame presentation, underscored the value playing at home can have.
"They jumped on us right away," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
He credited strong work by goalie Tomas Vokoun, who finished with 38 saves, for keeping the Penguins in the game.
They're hoping they won't have to rely on such heroics when they're at home during the playoffs.
"We obviously have a lot of confidence with how we play in our home rink, with our home fans," Jokinen said. "I think that's going to be huge when we go to the playoffs and we have home-ice.
"It's not the [biggest] thing ... but we'll take it."mobilehome - penguins
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 21, 2013 4:00 AM