The regular season isn't quite over, but the suspense is.
A 5-2 victory Thursday night against the New York Rangers locked up fourth place in the Eastern Conference for the Penguins -- along with home ice for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs -- and Philadelphia's 2-1 decision over Buffalo guaranteed that the Flyers are the team the Penguins will face.
It's not out of the question that the Penguins could run into New York at some point this spring, however, and, if they do, things just might get ferocious.
That became evident Thursday night, after Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was assessed a major penalty for kneeing after a hit on Rangers center Derek Stepan late in the third period.
- Game: Penguins vs. Flyers, regular season finale.
- When: 4 p.m. Saturday.
- Where: Consol Energy Center.
- TV: NBCSN.
Orpik was closing on Stepan as Stepan was cutting left to right across the ice and hit Stepan with his right knee. Whether the impact was knee-on-knee or slightly above the knee wasn't immediately known.
Neither was it confirmed that Stepan was injured significantly, although he clearly was in pain before going to the bench. What could not have been more obvious, however, was that Rangers coach John Tortorella was outraged by Orpik's hit.
"It's a cheap, dirty hit," he said. "I wonder what would happen if we did it to their two whining stars over there. I wonder what would happen. Just no respect amongst players. None. It's sickening."
Asked why he thought something like that had happened, Tortorella responded: "Ask the guy who did it. Ask him. It's one of the most arrogant organizations in the league. They whine about this stuff all the time and look at what happens."
And lest anyone miss his point, Tortorella then volunteered: "It's ridiculous. But they'll whine about something else over there, won't they? Starting with their two [expletive] stars."
Although Tortorella described the Penguins' two "stars" in vivid terms, he never identified them. Presumably, he was referring to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Rangers goalie Martin Biron was no less indignant, calling Orpik's hit "gutless and dirty," and characterizing him as a cheap-shot artist.
"That guy is known for sticking his knee out and his elbow out," he said. "I don't really care what he says in defense of what he did. It was dirty.
"It's what he's done all his career.
"He's going to continue to do that unless somebody gets him either with a suspension or whatever."
Orpik did not speak with reporters after the game, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma likened the hit to one Dallas forward Eric Nystrom delivered to Penguins defenseman Kris Letang about a month ago.
"Kris tries to get out of the way and makes the hit somewhat of a problem for the guy giving the hit," he said. "Brooks is on his track and looking to hit the guy at an angle, and he definitely tried to get out of the way and creates that scenario."
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 50-25-6, and was their Eastern Conference-leading 28th at home.
They can pad both totals when the Flyers visit Consol Energy Center at 4:08 p.m. Saturday, but those marks and a few individual achievements are about all that will be at stake.
New York was the second consecutive opponent that had nothing more than records and milestone at stake in a game. The Rangers had clinched first place in the East two nights earlier.
"You could see it a little, but they come hard," said Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis, who extended his scoring streak -- the longest in the NHL this season -- to 16 games.
"They're a good team. They play fast. They're a physical group."
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury reached a significant milestone, stopping 35 of 37 shots to earn his 226th career victory, tying Tom Barrasso's franchise record.
"It means I'm getting old a little bit, I guess," Fleury said, smiling.
Chris Kunitz gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with his 25th goal this season 71 seconds into the opening period and, after Brandon Dubinsky countered for New York at 4:23, Tyler Kennedy put the Penguins on top to stay at 8:27.
Richard Park scored the winner at 5:11 of the second and Malkin got his 49th of the season at 9:06 of the third before New York's Artem Anisimov beat Fleury while the Penguins were killing Orpik's penalty.
Letang closed out the scoring with an empty-netter at 19:11, officially reducing the game Saturday to a non-event. As inconsequential as a game against a bitter rival and playoff opponent can be, anyway.
"We're certainly going to go and try to win the hockey game," Bylsma said. "Our last game of the season against the Flyers."penguins
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 6, 2012 8:30 PM