It might seem like a conundrum.
The Penguins face Detroit tonight at Consol Energy Center. The Red Wings are a potential first-round opponent when the playoffs open next week, although a Penguins win tonight could reduce those chances.
But the reality is the Penguins are far from interested in manipulating the matchup.
“That is a dynamic of the game — it does change the probabilities if we win the game,” coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday after practice at Southpointe. “We’re still going to try to win it, I know that.”
The Penguins are locked in. They have clinched the Metropolitan Division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They can’t move up or down.
The remaining mystery is the identity of their first-round opponent, the top team between the two conference wild-cards. That could be Detroit, Columbus or Philadelphia. Those three teams played Tuesday night, though none against one of the others.
Detroit had the inside track before Tuesday.
While preparing for all of them — Bylsma said the Penguins have been scouting all three, and they are each scouting the Penguins — the Penguins made sure not to express a preference.
“Those are three really good teams,” winger Tanner Glass said. “Those are teams that are different, have their strengths and weaknesses. For us, it’s about our game right now, about getting ourselves individually ready to go and feeling confident going into the playoffs.”
Still, the notion of the game tonight serving as a potential a preview of a first-round matchup could shape the flavor of the game in a few ways.
“It will be interesting to see what kind of game it will be,” Penguins forward Jussi Jokinen said, pondering the idea that the clubs could attempt to set a tone or deliver a message about what to expect next week.
“That could happen. It could be a heated game. You don’t know how it’s going to go.”
In the Red Wings’ 5-4 overtime win March 20 against the Penguins at Joe Louis Arena, things were tense and close — and at that point, Detroit was clawing just to qualify for the playoffs for a 23rd year in a row. The Red Wings, like the Penguins, have been hit hard by injuries. They still have not clinched a playoff berth.
After that March 20 game, Penguins winger James Neal and Detroit center David Legwand received $5,000 fines from the NHL for infractions. Neal cross-checked Red Wings rookie Luke Glendening in the head in the second period, and Legwand butt-ended Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in the midsection in the third period.
The rivalry between the teams dates to 2008 and 2009, when they met in the Stanley Cup final. Detroit won the first year, the Penguins won the second.
“We had two great series against them,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “Fun to play. Good challenge.”
Unless there is further league realignment that sends the Red Wings back to the Western Conference, there never will be a rubber match on as big a stage as those two series. Detroit was moved to the East this season.
“I honestly never thought of facing them [in the playoffs] in our conference,” Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. “I always thought it would be in the finals if we saw them again.”
Now it could be in the first round.
The Penguins’ next-to-last regular-season game is Saturday at home against Philadelphia, and, depending on what happens in the interim, the outcome of that game also could help to determine first-round matchups in the East.
But first things first.
Because the game tonight against Detroit could be a playoff preview and a stage-setter, there will be some gamesmanship.
“I think you want to send them the right message, but I don’t know if you want to show them everything,” Fleury said, smiling.
Bylsma will have the biggest say in that from the Penguins’ standpoint. For example, he could rest one or more regulars, or use his upper hand at home to employ different matchups than he might use in a postseason series.
“You could throw all your aces on the table and show them what you’ve got, or do something different,” Bylsma said. “I would anticipate … we may change a little bit of what we do. I don’t think we’re going to throw all the aces out on the table and let them know what Game 1 is going to be like.”
There is a bottom line, though.
“We are going to try to win it,” Bylsma said.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.