Not score that counts; it's how they play game

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The outcome of the Penguins' regular-season finale tonight against Carolina at Consol Energy Center couldn't be less important.

Not when the Penguins already are locked in to the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, and the Hurricanes know they won't be part of the playoff field.

How that result, however, is reached could mean a lot to the Penguins.

After fairly pedestrian showings in losses against Buffalo and New Jersey -- a couple of other clubs that will sit out the postseason -- the Penguins will try to get their game back in sync before entering the playoffs.

"The last two games, obviously, we didn't play our style, bring the physicality we bring usually," winger Pascal Dupuis said.

"That's what we need to focus on."

The lineup will get something of an overhaul tonight as James Neal (concussion) and Paul Martin (hand surgery) return from absences of eight and 12 games, respectively.

Coach Dan Bylsma confirmed after practice Friday at Southpointe that both are scheduled to play against the Hurricanes and said that "integrating guys back into the lineup" will be a priority tonight.

He also made it clear that the Carolina game will be a dress rehearsal for Game 1 of the opening round, which is expected to be Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center.

"We feel we have three practices, including [the one Friday] and one game to get prepared for the playoffs," he said.

The Penguins have not lost three consecutive games all season, but realize that could happen if they don't sharpen their focus against Carolina.

"The last game, we didn't execute, didn't do our details," left winger Chris Kunitz said.

"We need to get back to playing the right way. We were almost going through the motions.

"We need to be going on that top level, or going toward that. You can't just flip a switch when the playoffs start."

Staal makes his return

Carolina center Jordan Staal will appear at Consol Energy Center as an opposing player for the first time tonight and likely will receive a warm welcome from the crowd.

He did, after all, make some major contributions during his six seasons with the Penguins and was a valuable member of their Stanley Cup-winning club in 2009.

And while Staal has said nothing to suggest he regrets bringing about the June trade that united him with his older brother, Eric, he probably didn't envision his first season in Raleigh playing out the way it has.

Carolina will sit out the playoffs, and Staal's season hasn't been much more satisfying than that of his new team.

He enters the regular-season finale with 10 goals and 20 assists in 47 games and has a plus-minus rating of minus-17 that is the second worst on the team.

Staal, however, will have a chance to salvage something from his disappointing season because he and Eric are scheduled to represent Canada at the world championships.

Not a fashion statement

Neal had a slightly different look at practice Friday, breaking out a lightly tinted visor instead of the clear one he had been wearing.

"Just a different look," he said, adding that it "helps with contact lenses."

Neal was quick to add, though, that he hasn't committed to making the switch permanent.

"We'll see if I like it," he said.

"See if I stick with it."

Tip-ins

Staal scored seven short-handed goals as a rookie with the Penguins in 2006-07, but has a total of just six in the half-dozen seasons that have followed. ... Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who still was awaiting the birth of his first child, was excused from practice Friday. ... Tampa Bay winger Martin St. Louis passed Sidney Crosby in the NHL scoring race Wednesday. If he ends up winning the Art Ross Trophy, St. Louis will be the first player from a non-playoff team to do so since Jarome Iginla, then of Calgary, in 2001-02.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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