It's not that the game Tuesday night doesn't matter.
Not even close, really.
Fact is, it could be one of the most important of the regular season for the Penguins, who will take on Buffalo at 7:38 p.m. at Mellon Arena.
After all, the Penguins will be facing a team that trails them by one point in the Eastern Conference standings, and has two games in hand.
It is entirely possible that the outcome of Tuesday's game will end up determining which club has home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Perhaps in a best-of-seven against the other.
Sidney Crosby knows that. So does Brooks Orpik. And Ryan Miller, for that matter.
• Game: Buffalo Sabres at Penguins.
• When: 7:38 p.m. Tuesday.
• TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
Whether that will make a difference for any of them when the Penguins meet Buffalo little more than 48 hours after Crosby clinched an Olympic championship for Canada by beating Miller in overtime of a 3-2 victory Sunday in Vancouver is another matter.
Relatively few players understand exactly what it is like to go from an Olympic gold-medal game to an NHL regular-season contest in a matter of two days -- never mind the cross-continental travel involved in this particular instance -- but Penguins right winger Bill Guerin is one of them.
He played for the U.S. squad that earned a silver medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and that gives him a special insight on the challenges facing Crosby, who played for Canada, as well as Orpik and Miller, who were teammates with the United States but will be on opposite sides Tuesday.
"Coming back and playing a regular-season game is going to seem like not much is going on," Guerin said.
He added that the physical demands of the Olympics aren't necessarily a concern because the players involved are so well-conditioned, but that even a potentially pivotal NHL game in early March seems relatively unimportant alongside a gold-medal game.
"That's why I say it's mentally tougher, because you have to be professional," Guerin said. "You have to kind of reel yourself back in and remind yourself of what's at stake for the Penguins."
He and coach Dan Bylsma agreed that how a player adapts to getting back in the NHL routine doesn't necessarily have anything to do with whether he played for the winner or loser in the gold-medal game.
"It's easy for us to analyze and say the guy who wins is going to be in a better mood than the guy who loses," Bylsma said.
"I don't particularly think you can judge how they're going to react to that, say, 'Ah, that's going to set him back for the rest of the year.' Winning could do that. Losing could do that."
Bylsma said the coaching staff will try to carve out some time off for the players who competed in the Olympics, especially the two who competed in the gold-medal game, because of the additional workload they assumed the past two weeks.
"We have already given them consideration going into the break, and we will give them consideration coming out of the break," Bylsma said.
"They've added a bunch of games to their total for this year. We'll give consideration to where they're at, physically and mentally, in terms of maybe another day off here and there."
The Penguins' four Olympic position players, not surprisingly, rank among the team's leaders in ice time. Gonchar leads the Penguins with an average of 24 minutes, 56 seconds and Crosby is second at 21:49, while Malkin is fifth (21:09) and Orpik sixth (20:12).
If the Penguins are involved in any lopsided games the final quarter of the season, especially if those are victories, don't be surprised if those guys play a bit less than usual.
Bylsma's plan, distilled to a single sentence: "Back them off when you can, and lean on them [when circumstances call for it]."
Whether the players will recognize the wisdom of that approach remains to be seen, but Bylsma understands there will be times when they won't be content being only interested observers. And frankly, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I know that if we're playing Buffalo and the score's 0-0 and there's 10 minutes left in the game, I don't think any of the players we have are going to say, 'Coach, I still want to be on a reduced schedule of minutes,'" Bylsma said. "They're going to look over, and they're going to want to be on the ice."
Because they're going to want to win. Just as they did for the past two weeks.
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 1, 2010 5:00 AM