Losing a game to the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night hardly mattered for the Penguins.
Their 4-2 defeat won't cost them the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs because the Penguins had locked that up three days earlier.
It won't give the Sabres, who won both of their games at Consol Energy Center this season, an infusion of confidence for a potential playoff meeting, either, because the only postseason games they will see will be on television.
Certainly, the Penguins would have preferred to avoid that blemish on their record -- not that the 35-11 mark they will take into their game tonight against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., is terribly flawed -- but when the story of their 2013 season is written, the Buffalo game won't merit so much as a footnote.
Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils, 7:38 p.m. today, Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders:
Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Johan Hedberg for Devils.
Will be playing final regular-season game on road, where they are 18-5. ... C Evgeni Malkin has just two goals in 13 games against Atlantic Division opponents this season. ... Have gone 13-1 in games decided by one goal.
Are 12-9-2 at home, including 3-1 victory Feb 9 against Penguins. ... Five of RW David Clarkson's 14 goals have been game-winners. ... Have outshot 25 of past 27 opponents.
- Hidden stat:
Devils have lost 10 of 13 games decided in overtime or shootouts.
Not unless some of the lapses and letdowns that surfaced against the Sabres manage to mutate from one-game anomalies to full-fledged bad habits before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week.
"I don't think ... we played our best," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Especially the first half of the game, the way we managed the puck.
"There were a lot of turnovers, a lot of opportunities for their team to go the other way with speed, and we saw them do that.
"That's not characteristic of how we want to play, how we want to get into a game."
It also doesn't reflect how the Penguins have played for most of this season, either. Particularly while going 22-3 in their past 25 games.
And make no mistake, there are obvious benefits to securing the top spot in the East a week before the end of the regular season.
That gives Bylsma the option of resting players who have logged a lot of hard minutes and to diversify the roles of some -- having Chris Kunitz kill penalties, for example -- in case they're needed to take on additional responsibilities in the playoffs.
At the same time, being involved in games where the stakes are low could cause some players to lose focus, and, perhaps some of the edge on their games.
"Obviously, it's a challenge for us, but we've been doing a really good job lately with that," forward Jussi Jokinen said before the Penguins' victory Monday in Ottawa. "We've been doing lots of those details that you have to do to win hockey games."
They did them again a few hours later against the Senators, but Tuesday, playing their third game in four days and with little on the line, they did not elevate their game to the level they have reached so consistently in recent weeks.
"We weren't quite as sharp in certain areas," right winger Jarome Iginla said. "We weren't as physical as we have been lately. We weren't quite as sharp as we have been lately."
One lackluster showing does not constitute a trend, and there's nothing to suggest that the Sabres game will become a template for the Penguins as they close out the regular season and move into the playoffs.
Most players don't appear to be concerned about the possibility of straying from what has made them successful, although defenseman Matt Niskanen acknowledged that it's a valid concern.
"I'd like to say no, but I think it will be tough," he said. "The one thing we have going for us is that guys are pretty focused on being ready for playoff time. More so than last year, I think.
"Last year's loss [to Philadelphia in the first round], the way we lost, it still kind of burns. I know it does to me. So, I think guys have that in the back of their heads, and have for a couple of weeks now."
That mindset is reflected by their record, which is the second best in the NHL.
And it's entirely possible that their subpar showing at times against Buffalo reminded the Penguins of how little margin for error there is at this level, particularly when they are about to get into a best-of-seven series.
"We want to play a little better than we did [against Buffalo] in our last two games," center Brandon Sutter said. "How our last two games go is going to determine how we come out in the first two [playoff] games at home."
Although the Penguins still don't know who they will face in the opening round -- the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg were possibilities going into Wednesday night -- they seem to grasp the importance of having their game in sync for the start of the playoffs.
"These next couple of games are going to be very important for us," Iginla said. "Just to have the right habits, and keep on getting sharper. It's going to come quick, the playoffs."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 25, 2013 4:00 AM