On the Penguins: Inside the numbers — places, points and ties

The benefits of finishing first in the Eastern Conference are obvious for the Penguins. It would assure them of starting at least the first three playoff series on home ice — assuming they qualify for Rounds 2 and 3, of course — and, perhaps more important, would give them home-ice advantage for any Game 7 before the Stanley Cup final.

And while their record in Game 7s on home ice is dismal (2-6, including 0-2 at Consol Energy Center), pretty much every club would want to be in familiar surroundings when its season is on the line.

But the Penguins also were reminded last spring that a conference championship comes with no guarantees of success.

Starting the first two rounds against the New York Islanders and Ottawa at home worked out well enough for them, but Boston swept them out of the Eastern final after winning Games 1 and 2 here.

This season, the Penguins and Bruins are jousting for the top spot in the East — the Penguins owned a five-point lead over Boston, which had a game in hand, before Saturday's games — and it's pretty clear the Penguins want to lock up the top spot again.

But mostly, it seems, as a by-product of playing well down the stretch, not as a stand-alone objective.

The week ahead

Tuesday: at Nashville ... The Penguins' all-time record in Nashville (3-6) could be the subject of a mournful country-western song.

Thursday: at San Jose ... Former Penguins RW Tyler Kennedy, pictured at right, had just four goals in his first 49 games with the Sharks.

Friday: at Anaheim ... The Ducks are a legitimate threat to win the Presidents' Trophy, in part because they were nearly unbeatable at the Honda Center for much of the season.

"Obviously, you want to finish first in the conference and in the whole league, but as long as we're clicking as a group coming into the playoffs and not sitting back because we've already locked stuff up, that's the key," defenseman Deryk Engelland said. "Going into the playoffs on a good roll."

If the Penguins and Bruins (or any other club) would happen to finish with the same number of points, the tiebreakers used to determine which club would get the higher seed would be as follows:

• The most regulation and overtime victories. The Penguins and Bruins had 36 each going into Saturday's games.

• Head-to-head competition. Because the Penguins and Bruins played two of their three games in Boston, the first of those would be disregarded. That means this tiebreaker would settle nothing, because each team won once.

• Goal-differential. Most ties are broken before it gets to this, but the difference in total goals-scored and goals-allowed could come into play for the Penguins and Boston. It's worth noting that when a game ends in a shootout, the winning team gets credit for one goal-for and the loser is tagged with one goal-against.

The Penguins entered their game against Chicago at Soldier Field Saturday night with a goal-differential of plus-47 — Boston was plus-50 before facing Washington Saturday — and that's a fair reflection of how they've played for much of the season.

Although it's possible that number will get even better before the regular season ends, that's another statistic the Penguins figure will take care of itself if they play to their capabilities.

"For us, it's more important that we play well than win games right now," center Brandon Sutter said. "We're in a good position to be in the playoffs, but it doesn't matter whether you finish first or eighth. It's how you play when that first [playoff] game comes."

Debate over 2018 has already begun

There seems to be considerable sentiment in NHL front offices and owners' boxes, though not locker rooms, for the league to sit out the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

The most obvious reason is the potential for injuries to valuable players — Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, Islanders center John Tavares, Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg, Montreal goalie Carey Price and Vancouver center Ryan Kesler are among those who suffered lost-time injuries at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia — but there are others, ranging from the impact of shutting down the league for two-plus weeks to how a compressed schedule affects the quality of play and health of the players.

"I'm not sure what the right answer is, because everybody's got a different opinion," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, associate GM of Team USA. "Whether we should be in the Olympics or not be in the Olympics because of injuries to NHL players, that's an [issue] for ownership.

"Obviously, they own the teams and the players are the greatest assets we have. ...There is risk involved and that's part of the problem, but I believe it's an exciting time of year for the NHL. The discussion for 2018, the benefits of that will certainly be taking place and it will be a higher level than myself."

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