The Penguins played without three regulars Thursday night against the New York Rangers and likely will be without them again Saturday afternoon when Philadelphia visits Consol Energy Center for the regular-season finale.
Coach Dan Bylsma said, however, that wingers James Neal and Steve Sullivan and defenseman Matt Niskanen "at this point in time are expected to be ready to start for the playoffs."
The three were in the lineup Tuesday at Boston, but now have undisclosed injuries.
Niskanen left that game in the second period after being hit by the Bruins' Daniel Paille, and Sullivan was limping after the game.
There had been no indication Neal was hurt until Thursday when he missed the game-day skate.
On the flip side, center Joe Vitale had nothing more than an inch of stitches along his right jaw line to show for blocking a shot by Boston behemoth Zdeno Chara.
Vitale writhed on the ice in pain after that third-period shot, but he said an X-ray showed no broken jaw.
"Luckily, I have a pretty good-sized jaw, lots of tissue there," he said. "I'll be all right.
"Everything showed up fine. They sewed it back up, and that was pretty much it."
A teammate teased Vitale by calling him "Warrior," and Bylsma marveled at his toughness.
"Anyone who was there at the game, you see the puck rise off the stick ... it was only a wrist shot, but it was Chara," Bylsma said.
"He got it up around the head area, so you're concerned. ... It left a mark, but he's doing well."
Not too surprisingly, center Evgeni Malkin was the biggest winner as the Penguins announced their 2011-12 team awards through the course of the game.
Malkin was named team MVP and won the booster club and community service awards.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was just behind.
He shared the defensive player award with defenseman Brooks Orpik and shared the good guy award for media cooperation with winger Pascal Dupuis.
Orpik also won the players' player award.
As was previously announced, winger Matt Cooke is the nominee for the Masterton Trophy for perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship.
The playoffs start next week for the Penguins, but three players had their eye on another postseason tournament -- the NCAA Frozen Four.
Winger Chris Kunitz played at Ferris State, which beat Union, 3-1, in the first semifinal in Tampa, Fla. Orpik played at Boston College, which faced Minnesota, where defenseman Paul Martin played, in the late semifinal.
"It's all in good fun," Martin said. "I have friends who play there or coach there."
Orpik works out at Boston College in the summer and keeps in touch.
"We were just back in Boston, and I talked to the coach when I was there," he said.
Kunitz has been keeping tabs on Ferris State and exchanging texts with longtime coach Bob Daniels, who was named Division I coach of the year after getting the Bulldogs back to the Frozen Four. Kunitz helped the Bulldogs reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2003.
"It's nice to be able to hang your hat on something, a place that you've been," Kunitz said. "Me and my wife both went there, so there's a lot of Bulldog pride in the house."
Pride in the Penguins locker room hadn't manifested itself into friendly wagering as late as after the game-day skate.
"I think we're too concerned with the Masters wagering," Orpik cracked.
Robert Morris will serve as host for the 2013 Frozen Four at Consol Energy Center.
The game against the Rangers was the Penguins' 250th sellout in a row. ... The only Penguins who have a shot at playing in all 82 games are Kunitz, Dupuis, Cooke and Craig Adams. ... Rangers backup goaltender Martin Biron started instead of Henrik Lundqvist, who has a slight hand injury. It was Biron's 500th NHL game.
First Published April 6, 2012 5:15 AM