The banner could have been ordered last week.
Or anytime last month, for that matter.
Or probably even last year.
The Penguins entered their game Tuesday night against Carolina knowing that a victory would lock up the Metropolitan Division championship for them, but the reality is that took a choke hold on the division long ago.
What isn’t clear is how they’ll react after the division title and No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind Boston is nailed down — whether they’ll play with genuine urgency when there is no major objective to be chased.
“If you look at past seasons, if you try to rest guys too much, if you try to ease in there— tiptoe into the playoffs — I think we’ve seen it has a direct carryover on how you play in the first round,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Obviously, you don’t want to kill yourself, physically, but you want to be up to speed.”
Left winger Chris Kunitz said “we have to play the right way” because “you don’t want to get out of sync,” and Orpik said that having a team with a heavy veteran presence should help the Penguins avoid losing their focus.
“Maybe three or four years ago, or maybe when you have a younger team, there’s more of a danger of that,” he said. “We have guys who know the trap you can fall into. We’ve experienced it before.”
Hurricanes veer off course
Five years ago, the Penguins faced Carolina in the Eastern final. The Hurricanes haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
And because they’re marooned in 13th place in the conference with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s pretty certain they won’t qualify this time, either.
Nonetheless, Carolina has some high-quality talent, and many people seem surprised by the Hurricanes’ run of playoff misses.
One of them is Penguins center Brandon Sutter, who played for Carolina before being acquired in the Jordan Staal trade in 2012.
“A couple of the years I was there, we only missed by one or two points,” Sutter said. “It’s tight every year. I’m sure it’s frustrating, but that’s just the way the sport goes sometimes.
“I’m sure they’re not in the position they want to be in, but they do have a good team, still. I’m sure that, in the near future, they’ll be getting in that top eight.”
Letang is Masterton nominee
Defenseman Kris Letang is the Penguins’ nominee for the NHL’s Masterton Trophy, which recognizes perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
“It’s a great honor,” Letang said. “But, at the same time, I wish I wouldn’t be [the nominee].”
Letang, 26, is recovering from a stroke and has not played since Jan. 27.
He has resumed practicing, but said again Tuesday that he does not know if he will return to the lineup this season, let alone have a target date for playing.
“I will let you know when I’m going to play,” he said. “If I’m going to.”
Letang, a contender for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman last season, had 10 goals and eight assists in 34 games before his stroke was diagnosed.
Each of the 30 NHL teams has one nominee for the Masterton. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association select the nominee for the team they cover and vote on the eventual winner.
Lowell MacDonald (1973) and Mario Lemieux (1993) are the only Penguins to win the Masterton.
Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (hand) reiterated that he hopes to return Thursday in Winnipeg. “I feel better today than I did [Monday],” he said. “That’s good. I thought I’d be a little sore, but no issues.” … The Penguins signed forward Bryan Rust, a third-round draft choice in 2010 who spent the past four years at Notre Dame, to a two-year entry-level contract that takes effect next season. He is 6 feet, 191 pounds and had 43 goals and 54 assists in 161 career games with the Fighting Irish.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.