Home ice on radar as stretch drive begins

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You won't find it listed on any NHL calendar.

It's not like the holiday roster freeze or the All-Star break or, for that matter, the trade deadline.

But it is a part of every season -- probably the most important part, for a lot of teams -- and it is about to begin.

It is the stretch drive.

Rosters are set, aside from some internal fine-tuning, and most teams are down to the final quarter of their schedule. The time when most playoff berths are locked up or lost, when favorable seedings are secured or squandered.

"For the most part, guys get pretty excited down the stretch," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said. "Everyone still has goals, as far as getting home ice in the playoffs and winning your division.

"You kind of set yourself up for the postseason, make sure you're getting your points and playing your best hockey down the stretch."

For the Penguins, the stretch drive will begin when they visit Dallas Wednesday for the first of the 20 games remaining in their regular season.

At least for the moment, they are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. If they manage to hold onto it, they would have home-ice advantage against the No. 5 team in the Eastern in a first-round playoff matchup.

And while home ice comes with no guarantees -- remember, the Penguins had it in the seven-game series they lost to Tampa Bay in Round 1 last spring -- wrapping it up is one of their objectives during the final month-plus of the season.

"Right now, we're fighting for home ice, and I'm happy with that," general manager Ray Shero said.

Shero also seems content with the personnel he had assembled before the trade deadline passed at 3 p.m. Monday.

It was a quiet day, for the most part, around the league, and the Penguins were one of a number of teams that did some shopping, but no buying.

Shero said the Penguins "had a number of conversations with some teams" and even "did make offers on some players," but didn't sound as if he'd come terribly close to acting on anything that would have altered the makeup of his roster.

"Whether it was the price, to our thinking, was too high on some players, or it just wasn't a fit on our end," deals simply didn't come together, he said.

Shero's perspective on the events -- and non-events -- of Monday, distilled to a single sentence: "It was a long day to, really, come up with nothing."

The prevailing sentiment seems to be that few trades, particularly those that could have a significant impact, were made because so many teams remain in contention for playoff berths. Going into Monday night's games, only five clubs were more than a half-dozen points removed from a spot in the postseason.

"The most important thing, I think, is the parity," Shero said. "There's still a lot of hockey to be played, and teams are still optimistic they can make the playoffs."

The Penguins, for what it's worth, believe they still have a chance to overtake the New York Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and, quite possibly, the conference.

They were seven points behind New York before the Rangers played New Jersey Monday night. New York still owns a game in hand on the Penguins, even after facing the Devils, but the Penguins believe they can overtake New York, especially if they win the two games they have left against them.

"We want to catch the Rangers," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "We want to finish first. That's our goal.

"We've been winning lately. We've beaten them [in the past two meetings], and have two more games against them, so we'll see what's going to happen."

Whatever the Penguins accomplish will be done, essentially, with the players they will dress against the Stars, although they hope to have injured guys such as Sidney Crosby, Tyler Kennedy and Arron Asham back at some point.

Having the trade deadline behind them removes any nagging concerns some guys might have had about where they'd be working in the final quarter of the season.

"It puts a lot of players at ease and you realize, for the most part, that if you're going to get it done, it's going to be the guys you have after the deadline," Martin said. "You're going forward with that team."

The only question now, then, is just how far that team can go.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg.


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