Little wiggle room in Penguins' playoff push

Looking for a reason to believe the Penguins will sit out the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring?

It's not hard to find one.

After all, the Penguins are just two games over .500; they don't have a winning record on home ice; and they have won consecutive games only once since Nov. 15.

Stats like those make a compelling case for why the Penguins shouldn't expect to finish in the top eight of the Eastern Conference to qualify for the playoffs, let alone make an encore appearance in the Cup final.

The Penguins, who will play the New York Rangers at 7:38 tonight at Mellon Arena, are aware of such depressing truths. They just don't accept them at face value.

"It's in everybody's mind in this room that there's no way we're not making the playoffs," forward Max Talbot said. "Everybody in this room. I don't think it can happen, in our heads."

Wade through the double negatives -- even while bearing in mind that it's what happens on the ice, not in the Penguins' heads, that matters most -- and it becomes clear that their confidence is not shaken the way some might suspect after two months of mostly lackluster play.

Even while looking up at most of the conference, they can take a troubling number -- say, having a lone two-game winning streak in more than two months -- and transform it into a source of hope.

"What happened from Oct. 5 through mid-November?" center Sidney Crosby said. "We played pretty well. So I think we've proven we can win consistently. Obviously, we haven't done that lately."

The Penguins' well-documented injury problems -- they will reach 200 man-games lost this evening -- have contributed to their undistinguished record. But again, they find a way to put a positive spin on a negative reality.

"Any team that goes through what we've been through is going to suffer," coach Michel Therrien said. "We can't deny that. We're there -- we're right there -- and that's why I'm optimistic."

The predicament hardly is hopeless -- going into last night's games, the team was tied with Florida for ninth place in the East, one point behind eighth-place Carolina -- but history suggests the Penguins will have to improve their record significantly over the final two months of the season to get into the playoffs.

Qualifying generally requires 92 to 94 points. If the Penguins go 20-10-4, matching their record from the final 34 games in 2007-08, they would reach 94.

Playing 10 games over .500 the rest of the way is a lot to expect of a team that is bobbing along barely above the break-even point.

"I check the standings every once in a while, but I never do the math about how many games we have to win [to reach a certain point level]," center Jordan Staal said. "If you just go out and play every night to win, you're going to make the playoffs."

Every aspect of the Penguins' play can be upgraded, but nothing more so than their record on home ice. Failing to improve on their 11-11-2 mark at Mellon Arena isn't an option if they're interested in playing beyond April 11.

"It's a must if we're going to have success," left winger Matt Cooke said.

Of course, just a few hours later, winning at home tonight got a bit tougher as Cooke, who had been skating with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the No. 1 line, was assessed a two-game suspension for a hit to the head of Carolina forward Scott Walker Jan. 20.

The Penguins are expected to recall a forward from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre to replace Cooke, with Jeff Taffe, Chris Minard and Janne Pesonen the leading candidates.

Losing Cooke is the latest bit of adversity for a team that has been immersed in it since last fall, and the stresses inherent in their situation won't go away anytime soon.

"You have to feel the pressure," Therrien said. "But at the same time, you don't want the pressure to take away from your game. When our focus is at the right place, I have a lot of confidence in this group."

He's supposed to. It's his team. This evening, the Penguins will start trying to convince people who aren't on the corporate payroll that they should, too.

"Our playoffs basically start [tonight]," Crosby said. "We're going to be in a big battle from here on in."

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published January 28, 2009 5:00 AM


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