Stretch run comes down to battle in division



With their season down to 10 games, the Penguins have little margin for error if they hope to top the 105 points they collected in 2006-07.

At 89 points going into their game tonight against the Rangers in New York, they would need to secure 17 of a possible 20 points down the stretch.

Then again, the Penguins don't necessarily have to reach 106 points to improve on their finish in the standings from last season, when they were second in the Atlantic Division and earned the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

First place in the division -- and in the conference, for that matter -- is well within reach. They sit second in the Atlantic, one point behind New Jersey and six points ahead of the third-place Rangers.

"It's going to be tight," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "We'd like to finish in first place. We're going to give it everything we've got. We're positioned to control our destiny."

The NHL schedule makers deserve some credit for giving the Penguins that control. With an emphasis on division games during the last few weeks of the regular season, 10 of the Penguins' last 11 games were scheduled against Atlantic opponents.

That means they will face a lot that's New -- New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils. Plus their Phil(adelphia) of the Flyers.

"I think it's pretty cool what the league did with the schedule," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think everyone likes it and is looking forward to it. It should make the races pretty good toward the end, especially with our division so tight."

The run started Sunday with a 7-1 win at home against the Flyers. The Penguins end the season with a home-and-home April 2 and 6 against fourth-place Philadelphia, which is not only scrambling for position in the division but also is trying just to make the playoffs.

After the lone non-division game left, Thursday at home against Tampa Bay, the Penguins have two games against New Jersey (Saturday at home, March 25 on the road), two against the last-place Islanders (Monday on the road, March 27 at home) and two more against the Rangers (March 30 at home, March 31 in New York).

They struggled inside their division early in the season. At one point, they were 2-6 against Atlantic teams. By late December, they were 4-10-1.

Then the team got hot, but division games were scarce. Between Dec. 23, when they launched an eight-game winning streak, and Sunday's win against Philadelphia, the Penguins played just seven of 35 games inside the division, going 5-1-1.

Broken down, the Penguins are 2-3-1 against the Devils, 2-2-1 against the Rangers, 4-2 against the Islanders and 2-4 against the Flyers.

At 10-11-2 they remain the only Atlantic team with a losing intradivisional record. Therrien said getting better against the teams they face eight times each this season is part of a general team improvement.

The Penguins, who have won four of their past five games and have at least a point in 11 of their past 14 games, are confident they can hold onto or improve their place as far as postseason positioning.

"We should finish in a pretty good spot," center Evgeni Malkin said through translator George Birman. "It's going to be very interesting."

With so many division games and so much at stake with each matchup, the stretch run will serve as a tuneup for the postseason.

"You look at first place in our division, if you have a night off you can drop a spot. That's the fun part about this time of year," Penguins winger Jeff Taffe said.

"It's good. It's going to come down to a lot of teams fighting for the spots, and when you're playing division teams, it's going to prepare us for the playoff season."

The idea of a pre-playoff stretch with so much on the line each game doesn't have the Penguins nervous. It's just the opposite.

"I think it's pretty cool with all the division games," winger Ryan Malone said. "They're going to be huge games. They're going to be playoff-type games.

"It's going to be awesome. I can't wait."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721. First Published March 18, 2008 4:00 AM


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