James Neal's return a big hit for Penguins

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This will go down as one of the shortest regular seasons in franchise history.

One of the most satisfying, too.

The Penguins' 8-3 victory against Carolina Saturday night at Consol Energy Center, made possible by a run of five unanswered goals in the third period, allowed them to earn a 36-12 record.

"Finishing 48 games with 36 wins is outstanding," coach Dan Bylsma said. "The team has done an amazing job of winning hockey games ... winning different ways, with different people in the lineup."

The Penguins, who will have the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, are expected to open their run at a Stanley Cup Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center, but neither their opponent nor the starting date has been finalized.

They will face the New York Islanders or Ottawa in Round 1. It will be the Senators if Ottawa loses in regulation at Boston tonight, the Islanders if Ottawa takes at least one point from the Bruins.

The Penguins had identical 18-6 records at home and on the road. Their final victory was made possible, in large part, by winger James Neal's third career hat trick, which included two goals in just over 2 1/2 minutes early in the third period.

What made his contribution particularly striking is that Neal had missed the previous eight games while recovering from a concussion.

Neal, though, didn't look as if he had missed a shift, let alone a few weeks, as he threw a game-high eight shots at Carolina goalie Justin Peters while the Penguins made sure they did not lose three games in a row all season.

"I felt I was ready," he said. "It was great to get out there and get a game in before the playoffs."

And, best of all, to spend a little quality time with center Evgeni Malkin, with whom Neal has an obvious chemistry. Malkin complemented Neal's three goals and assist with a goal and two assists of his own.

"It's always fun [to play alongside him]," Neal said. "It shows how good he is. He made some great passes."

Neal wasn't the only high-profile Penguin to return against the Hurricanes.

Defenseman Paul Martin, who had missed the previous 12 games because of a broken hand, recorded 23 minutes, 31 seconds of ice time. That was just three seconds fewer than team leader Kris Letang.

"I felt good," said Martin, who was credited with two blocked shots. "It took a little while to get into it, I think."

Even with Neal and Martin back, the Penguins had a less-than-complete lineup, as center Sidney Crosby (jaw) and defenseman Brooks Orpik (undisclosed) did not dress. Their status for the start of the playoffs is not known. If they're able to play, an already-crowded roster will become even more overloaded.

"It will be tough for the coaches to decide who to play, and with who," Martin said. "I think it's a good problem to have."

Winger Pascal Dupuis called the Carolina game "a great tuneup" for the playoffs, and it certainly started that way for the Penguins.

Malkin gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal at 10:49 of the opening period, and Neal put them up by two at 4:10 of the second.

Carolina enforcer Kevin Westgarth trimmed the Penguins' advantage to 2-1 at 12:30, knocking an Eric Staal rebound past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for his first goal this season, but Jussi Jokinen countered for the Penguins at 16:10.

The Penguins seemed to be in control then, but Tuomo Ruutu and Westgarth -- who had one goal in 120 NHL games before Saturday -- scored in a span of 37 seconds to tie the game after two.

That didn't seem to rattle the Penguins, though, and Neal put them in front to stay with goals at 1:36 and 4:14 of the third. If that wasn't enough, Brenden Morrow (5:24), Matt Cooke (15:43) and Jokinen (19:11) beat Peters before time expired.

Jokinen, acquired from Carolina shortly before the April 3 trade deadline, has seven goals and four assists in 10 games with the Penguins.

But Jokinen's stats, like everything else the Penguins the Penguins have done since mid-January, won't count for much once the postseason gets underway.

"Now, you can erase the 36 wins," Bylsma said. "We're focused on four wins [in Round 1 of the playoffs] right now. And that starts on Wednesday."

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 28, 2013 4:15 AM


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