Earning home ice is nice, but ... Some like starting on road

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The Penguins understand the implications of earning home-ice advantage for Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and appreciate the pluses that come with having it.

Very few see any downside to playing Games 1 and 2 in a best-of-seven series in familiar surroundings, and even fewer would object to having a Game 7 there.

But not many seem to view it as a critical objective for the final six days of the regular season, either.

"It always gives you an edge, and you look for any edge you can get at this time of year," left winger Mike Rupp said Monday. "Is it imperative? No, I don't think so."

Defenseman Zbynek Michalek agreed.

"Of course, it's our goal, but if it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world," he said. "It's one of those things we want to get, but if we don't, it's not like we're going to be down or upset about it."

Scouting report
  • Matchup: New Jersey Devils at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
  • TV/Radio, Internet: Internet: Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9), penguins.nhl.com.
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Martin Brodeur for Devils.
  • Penguins: Have gone 24-13-2 at Consol Energy Center in first season there. ... LW James Neal has just two goals in his past 29 games. ... Power play has scored once in past nine games.
  • Devils: Are 16-21-2 on road, 0-1-1 at Consol Energy Center. ... RW Mattias Tedenby is first player to get two penalty shots in same season since Penguins C Jordan Staal in 2006-07. ... Have better record when being outshot (18-11-2) than when outshooting opponents (15-24-3).
  • Hidden stat: Devils have not scored in past 173 minutes, 55 seconds on road.

A first-round matchup with Tampa Bay seems likely, if not downright inevitable, as the Penguins prepare for their final three games of the regular season, beginning with one against New Jersey tonight at Consol Energy Center.

Because they have a one-point lead over the Lightning, the Penguins need only defeat three teams that will sit out the postseason -- the Devils, New York Islanders and Atlanta -- to clinch home ice for an opening-round collision with Tampa Bay. (Assuming, of course, that Philadelphia doesn't melt down and relinquish first place in the Atlantic Division, in which case the Penguins would move even higher in the Eastern Conference seedings.) But even though winning their final three games would lock up home ice for Round 1, the Penguins look at that as mostly a byproduct of playing well, which is their primary goal.

"Going into [tonight's] game, a big focus for our team is trying to get home ice and maintain home ice," coach Dan Bylsma said.

"Playing well going into the playoffs is a part of that, as well. Playing well as a team is a part of that. We haven't said, 'Hey, we need to win all three games.' We know if we win all three games, we will hold home ice."

For the most part, Bylsma's players figure that having the first two games of Round 1 at Consol Energy Center would be a good thing; right winger Alex Kovalev won't necessarily argue the point, but figures there are some positive aspects to opening on the road.

"When it comes to playoff games, I don't really care where we start," he said. "People talk a lot about how important it is to get [home-ice] advantage, but for me, it doesn't really matter.

"Actually, in some ways, I like to start away and see where we're at. If we win one or two games [on the road], it becomes a little easier at home."

For what it's worth, the Penguins have earned as many of their 100 points to date on the road as they have at home. They are 24-13-2 at Consol Energy Center -- one home game was played at Heinz Field -- and 22-11-6 in away games.

"We'll take home ice -- we'll certainly shoot for it -- [but] we also know that when we go on the road, we're a team that can have success there, as well," Bylsma said.

Regardless of where they start the playoffs, the Penguins hope to have their power play more in sync than it has been for most of this season.

To that end, Bylsma reconfigured his two units Monday -- the top one features Jordan Staal, James Neal, Kovalev, Kris Letang and Michalek, the second Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu, Tyler Kennedy, Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen -- and made some tactical adjustments, as well, with the intent of getting more pucks and bodies toward the net.

"We have three games to try to get that mentality and try to establish something," Bylsma said.

Those games will be against teams whose penalty-killing runs from eighth place in the league rankings (New Jersey) to 14th (Islanders) to 28th (Atlanta).

Of course, with so little at stake for them, there's no way of predicting how those clubs with perform. Or even how the Penguins will react to them.

"We can't take any games lightly," Michalek said. "I'm sure those teams are going to play hard."

He expects his team to do the same, and that might be enough to lock up home-ice advantage for the first round. Whether the Penguins care much about it or not.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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