Penguins close regular season with 3-2 shootout loss to Senators



The Penguins finished the 2013-14 regular season 27 games over .500.

They accumulated 109 points, second most in franchise history.

They earned the Metropolitan Division championship and home-ice advantage for at least two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, assuming they survive a Round 1 meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

And they did it despite losing a league-high 529 man-games -- that's an average of 6.45 in each of their 82 games -- to injury and illness.

All of which might prompt some to label their season, well, something of a success.

But nothing the Penguins (51-24-7) accomplished in the regular season, which concluded with a 3-2 shootout loss to Ottawa Sunday night at Consol Energy Center, will matter much if they aren't able to have a significant impact in the playoffs which begin Wednesday.

Fact is, everything that preceded Game 1 against the Blue Jackets essentially has been a dress rehearsal for what is to come.

"You can talk about the number of wins and number of points and where it ranks in Penguins history but really, that's just given us our spot in the playoffs," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Where our success will be measured is in playoff wins."

The Penguins' list of healthy scratches -- a group headlined by Sidney Crosby, Matt Niskanen and Brandon Sutter -- when they faced the Senators was the most accurate indication of the game's importance. Which fell somewhere between nil and none, roughly.

Still, even though the season will be evaluated strictly on what they achieve between now and the end of their playoff run, that doesn't detract from some strong individual performances over the past six-plus months.

Crosby put up a league-best total of 104 points. Along with earning his second NHL scoring championship, he probably should start to think about what he would like to say in his league MVP acceptance speech.

Crosby's scoring title is the franchise's 15th; that's one fewer than Montreal, the all-time leader. It's worth mentioning that the Canadiens, whose most recent Art Ross Trophy was won by Guy Lafleur in 1978, have been around for 50 more seasons than the Penguins.

"I'm not sure we know how fortunate we have been to have leading scorers and MVPs here in Pittsburgh for a long time," Bylsma said.

Defenseman Olli Maatta isn't going to win the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top rookie, but he at least forced his way into the conversation with his responsible, efficient and productive play.

Left winger Chris Kunitz scored a career-high 35 goals, and Niskanen underscored a strong two-way showing by ringing up personal bests in goals (10), assists (36) and points (46).

And there was some pretty incredible work done off the ice, too. Remember, defenseman Kris Letang came back from a stroke and goalie Tomas Vokoun seems about to return after a season-long layoff because of blood clots.

Regardless, with the formality of the regular season out of the way, the Penguins' focus will shift to their series against Columbus.

They swept the season series from the Blue Jackets, 5-0, and figure to be a heavy favorite to advance to the second round, but the Penguins have lost to a lower-seeded opponent every spring since winning a third Stanley Cup in 2009.

It's no surprise, then, that the Penguins haven't begun researching restaurants in the cities of potential second-round opponents. They insist they regard the Blue Jackets as a viable threat.

"They have a good combination of youth and experience," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think they'll be very confident, especially the way they finished the season. ... You know their compete level is going to be there every night."

Because Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh are separated by fewer than 200 miles, a ferocious rivalry between the teams would seem to be a natural.

But this is the first season the teams were in the same division -- or conference, for that matter -- and they never have met in the postseason.

That will change in a couple of days, when the intensity of the rivalry should be ratcheted to levels well above anything reached previously.

"I'm not sure you get it ... without getting a playoff matchup," Bylsma said. "Once you get that animosity there, you're going to have a rivalry."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 13, 2014 10:30 PM

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