NEW YORK -- The NHL scoring race has effectively been reduced to a two-man competition, with Washington's Alex Ovechkin holding a 99-97 lead on Evgeni Malkin before last night's games.
Predictably, most of the Penguins seem confident Malkin can overtake Ovechkin to win the Art Ross Trophy.
"I don't know why not, the way he's playing," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said.
Actually, there might be a pretty good reason. While Malkin benefits from having a number of talented players around him, that means the Penguins don't rely on him as heavily as the Capitals do on Ovechkin.
That's good for the Penguins' offensive diversity, bad for Malkin's opportunities to pump up his personal statistics.
"Ovechkin's out there for the full two minutes [of power plays]," left winger Ryan Malone said. "When we get Sidney [Crosby] back, we're going to have two first units, almost, on the power play, so I don't think [Malkin] is going to get every opportunity Ovechkin might."
Four teams were clustered near the top of the Eastern Conference standings when play began last night, with only three points separating them.
Six other clubs were competing for the final four playoff spots in the East, with five points between the top and bottom of that group.
Consequently, there is something at stake for at least one team in pretty much every game played, which Penguins coach Michel Therrien believes works to the benefit of all concerned.
"There's a race for first place, there's a race for making the playoffs. It's great for the league, great for the fans, great for the players," he said.
Defenseman Rob Scuderi, who has missed three weeks while a surgically repaired finger heals, will have a pin removed from the finger today but still hasn't targeted a date for his return.
"I would like to play a few games, at least get my timing back and get back into the flow of things, before the playoffs start," he said yesterday.
Scuderi said he has been told that pain-tolerance will be a major issue when he resumes playing, and that he will consider taping his broken finger -- the little one on his left hand -- to the one next to it because "they say that helps."
He went on the ice after the Penguins' morning skate yesterday but wants to participate in some regular practices with his teammates before getting involved in a game.
"I'd like to do that first," he said, "then work exponentially from there."
Penguins defenseman Hal Gill, who has tormented and frustrated Jaromir Jagr since Jagr's days with the Penguins, was matched against him much of the time last night.
Therrien, as usual, matched Sergei Gonchar and his partner, Brooks Orpik on this occasion, against the opposition's top line. Last night, that was the Brendan Shanahan-Scott Gomez-Nigel Dawes unit.
That made it possible for Gill to go against Jagr, as he has so often in recent years.
"I try to keep it simple," Gill said of being pitted against Jagr. "The biggest thing is taking away his time and space, allowing your forwards to come back and your partner to adjust, to take away his first and second options and make him try to get creative and do something different. Try to buy time until you get help."
Gill figures that being 6 feet 7, 250 pounds is the primary reason he has a history of being effective against Jagr, who is 6-3, 240.
"We've had some hard battles," Gill said. "He's obviously a talented player who uses his size and strength. That's something I match up well against."