Next goal: Some rest, tuning up for playoffs
Among the questions these last days of the season: Which is more important for Evgeni Malkin - rest or the NHL scoring title?
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So, Pittsburgh Penguins, you just clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. What are you going to do next?
Well, they aren't going to Disney World. There's still too much to do before the postseason ride begins next week.
After their 6-4 win Tuesday at Tampa Bay, the Penguins came home from Florida, had a short practice yesterday at Mellon Arena and pondered how to handle their final two regular-season games.
While there is a chance to move up from sixth place in the Eastern Conference depending on what they do tonight against the New York Islanders and Saturday at Montreal and how other teams fare in the final days of the regular season, the Penguins also have an opportunity to prepare for the postseason without the pressure of still needing to qualify.
Toward that end, defenseman Philippe Boucher and backup goaltender Mathieu Garon are expected to play tonight after extended absences, and interim coach Dan Bylsma and his staff will sort through other decisions.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:38 p.m., Mellon Arena.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: athieu Garon for Penguins. Joey MacDonald for Islanders.
- Penguins: Are 4-0-1 vs. Islanders. ... C Jordan Staal has 2 goals, 4 assists and is plus-7 over past 4 games. ... Ten of RW Petr Sykora's 25 goals have been winners.
- Islanders: Are 2-5-2 in past 9 road games. ... C Doug Weight has no points in 6 games since returning from knee injury. ... Five of LW Sean Bergenheim's 14 goals are winners.
- Hidden stat: In their 9-0 loss Tuesday to Carolina, Islanders had more than three times as many penalty minutes (37) as shots (12).
Bylsma said some players' ice time might be slightly reduced for rest purposes or increased for added preparation. He also will be mindful of center Evgeni Malkin's pursuit of the NHL scoring title in dispatching players over the boards. Malkin leads the league with 110 points, two more than Washington's Alex Ovechkin.
"We're going through those scenarios," Bylsma said, adding that the bottom line is what the Penguins can get out of these final two games.
"We've been kind of running a sprint for the last month, month and a half and now we have to refocus and get ready for the playoffs. The last two games are important in terms of how we want to play as a team and getting sharp and ready for the playoffs."
If everything falls the right way, the Penguins could finish as high as fourth, which would give them home-ice advantage in the first round. They can fall no further than seventh.
"Home ice plays a big part, but, at the same time, we've got to make sure our game is where it needs to be," center Sidney Crosby said. "We've got to play well, and wherever that puts us, that puts us. We can't glide in."
Nor do the Penguins want to finish the regular season tired or beaten up.
"That's a really tough balance," Crosby said. "You have to figure it out. I'm sure you're not going to drain guys or overplay them."
Bylsma's approach to the final two games could be shaped by the fact the Penguins are coming off a 1-1-1 road trip that included nearly a blown four-goal lead against the Lightning.
"I would say we didn't play our best the last couple games, so my feeling is that we should use those two games to prepare ourselves and make sure we're getting back on track and playing the way we should," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said.
The Islanders could arrive feeling like cornered animals. They are coming off a 9-0 loss Tuesday to Carolina -- their most lopsided in team history -- and will clinch last place in the NHL with a regulation loss.
"They have nothing to lose, so they're going to come out and play hard and loose, but we should focus on what we're doing," Gonchar said.
It could be as much about their minds as anything.
"We just have to keep it calm just to get through those two games, make sure we don't [pick up] any bad habits and just prepare for the playoffs," winger Petr Sykora said. "I feel as confident as I did last year before the playoffs."
The Penguins in 2008 advanced to the final before falling to Detroit in six games.
They likely will need their depth to make a similar run, which is one reason Bylsma is willing to make lineup changes.
With Marc-Andre Fleury carrying the goaltending load for weeks, Garon will be making just his third appearance and second start -- his most recent was March 15 -- since he was acquired Jan. 17 in a trade with Edmonton. He is 1-1.
Boucher hasn't played since Jan. 30 and had foot surgery in February. He has been off injured reserve since March 20 but couldn't crack the lineup as the Penguins were chasing a playoff spot.
"Guys have played well for a long time now, for two months," Boucher said. "It's all timing. I should have probably had that surgery done earlier and then I would have been back when Dan [Bylsma] got here [Feb. 15], but, when Dan got here, everybody started to play well from top to bottom.
"It was just a matter of time for us to clinch the playoffs. Now we have to be ready. My part of it was to stay in shape and get ready and get a game or two in and see where that takes me."
That's just one of the tasks the Penguins face in their final two regular-season games.
NOTES -- Defenseman Hal Gill did not practice, and forward Max Talbot skated for five minutes. Team officials said the two were not injured but were being rested. ... Fresh haircuts and clean-shaven faces abounded as players and staff posed on the ice for the annual team photos before practice.
First Published April 9, 2009 12:11 am