Penguins winning conference would be cause for celebration

The Penguins didn't have a wild celebration when they clinched a playoff spot. Or even a mild one. It was business as usual.

But they wouldn't mind finishing first in the Eastern Conference when the regular season ends in less than two weeks.

"Just to be first, I think it's great," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "We've had a good season. It would be a nice reward to finish first in the conference."

The Penguins are on top of the East, leading Montreal by seven points and Boston by eight, although the Bruins have a game in hand on both.

The Penguins play Montreal tonight at Consol Energy Center and the Bruins Friday in Boston.

Asked if those games will be about trying to clinch a No. 1 seed or toning for the postseason, Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton gave the easy answer.

"I think both," he said. "We definitely put more onus on those games. Obviously, all the games and all the points are important, but those are two of the other top teams in the conference that we could potentially meet deeper in the playoffs."

The Penguins are 2-0 against both teams this season.

"Anytime you're playing a team that's in the playoffs or around the playoffs, you're always judging, as a measuring stick, as [a team you might play] a potential playoff series against," winger Matt Cooke said.

"They may not be quote-unquote do-or-die games, but they're still very important, and they hold a huge significance as to how we prepare."

Montreal, one point ahead of Boston atop the Northeast Division, has gone into a mini-funk at a critical time. The Canadiens have lost three of their past four games, including consecutive losses by three goals each.

The Penguins have won four games in a row. The most recent three were against teams that have little to no chance of making the playoffs. The first of those four, though, was a 2-1 shootout win against a New York Rangers team that was picked to contend in the East but is battling down the stretch just to make the playoffs.

Eaton figured the games against the Canadiens and Bruins will be "kind of like the last game we played the Rangers. It felt like a playoff game. [Preparation] beforehand and during the game, it was like a playoff game. I expect more of the same in those couple of [upcoming] games."

Injury updates

The status of the four injured players remained the same.

Center Evgeni Malkin practiced but, for the second day in a row, did not skate on a regular line much. He did not take any heavy shots. Malkin has missed one game with what is believed to be a shoulder problem and is "day to day," coach Dan Bylsma said.

Center Sidney Crosby (broken jaw) and winger James Neal (concussion) skated in full gear before practice with conditioning coach Mike Kadar for a second day in a row. They went a little longer than Monday, about 45 minutes, and Crosby seemed to exert himself more.

Defenseman Paul Martin (hand surgery) skated before all the others, wearing warmups.

Capitalizing on 3-day break

With a rare three days off between games, the Penguins structured their practice time differently than they have most of this lockout-shortened season.

The team remained in Florida Saturday night after a 3-1 win and flew home Sunday, which became a day off.

Monday, the Penguins held a high-energy practice that offered good conditioning work.

Tuesday, the team spent more than an hour in a lower-intensity workout addressing a lot of details and situations, from faceoffs to players joining the play coming off the bench to pretty much every special-teams combination -- even including six-on-five, which would be with the goaltender pulled.

The session was punctuated with breaks to watch coaches diagram plays. "It was a great opportunity," Bylsma said of the three days.

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First Published April 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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