Core players rest up for playoffs

Penguins 5, Thrashers 2

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ATLANTA -- Jordan Staal spent the day in street clothes. So did Chris Kunitz.

James Neal and Paul Martin, too.

Marc-Andre Fleury got the afternoon off, as well.

Didn't matter.

With nothing except a few statistics and personal achievements at stake in the Penguins' regular-season finale -- a 5-2 victory against Atlanta Sunday at Philips Arena -- coach Dan Bylsma took advantage of the opportunity to rest many of his core players.

All, except Neal, likely would have played if the Penguins still had a chance to overtake Philadelphia for first place in the Atlantic Division, but that point was rendered moot Saturday night.

Far more important is that all of them, including Neal, should be available when the Penguins open their first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay at 7:08 p.m. Wednesday at Consol Energy Center. Neal got an unspecified injury, believed to involve his hand or wrist, in the Penguins' 4-3 shootout victory on Long Island this past Friday. He went to the locker room early in the second period and hasn't been back on the ice since.

But when Bylsma was asked Sunday if he expects Neal will be there for Game 1 of the Lightning series, he responded simply, "I do."

The Penguins know, of course, that they won't have center Evgeni Malkin, who is out until next season after undergoing knee surgery, or left winger Matt Cooke, who is suspended for the first round.

It remains to be seen whether center Sidney Crosby, who hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion, will be able to return at any point in the Lightning series. And, if so, when.

Bylsma said there is no change in Crosby's status, which means he still hasn't been cleared for contact.

Crosby, who was having an MVP-caliber season before being injured, missed the final 41 games of the regular season.

Despite that -- and significant injuries to other key players, such as Staal, Malkin, Kunitz and Brooks Orpik -- the Penguins finished the regular season with a 49-25-8 record.

That translates to 106 points, the second-highest total in franchise history, even though they lost a tiebreaker to Philadelphia for first place in the Atlantic Division.

The incurably optimistic might note that those 106 points would give them home-ice advantage in a Stanley Cup final against any Western Conference club except Vancouver.

"We would have liked winning the division," Bylsma said. "We would have liked saying we're the second seed. We did get home ice, which is important.

"At the beginning of the season, if you'd say we'd finish with 106 points ... I think we all probably would have taken that and considered it a good year."

The real success of their season will be measured by how the Penguins fare in the playoffs, however, and the Lightning will present a formidable challenge to their survival.

Tampa Bay finished just three points behind the Penguins in the East, and features some of the most volatile offensive talents in the game.

"They're an interesting team," Bylsma said. "They have real good skill. They have some skilled players, some dangerous players."

Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier headline that group. All are proven game-breakers, and limiting the damage they do is a daunting task.

"They have a lot of skilled forwards who play a lot of minutes," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said. "At the same time, we're the kind of group that plays a detailed-oriented game. I think we match up pretty well against these guys. It's a matter of executing and playing our game."

Not surprisingly, the series could be decided by special teams. Tampa Bay has the NHL's sixth-rated power play, with a conversion rate of 20.5 percent; the Penguins ranked first in penalty-killing at 86.1 percent.

"They can all shoot the puck, they're all really smart players," Penguins center Max Talbot said. "We're going to have to be really disciplined.

"We're a good unit, but they're a good unit, as well. The best way to kill penalties is to stay out of the box."

The wild card might prove to be the Penguins' power play. It sputtered all season, but manufactured a goal in each of the final three games.

"I think it will be a real hard-fought series," Bylsma said. "A real interesting series."


Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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