Penguins face must-win situation against Flyers
Penguins forward Chris Kunitzon facing the Flyers tonight: "It's a huge game for us. We need to carry the momentum and try to have our best game of the year."
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Reality held sway in the Penguins' locker room Wednesday at Southpointe. Their game tonight in Philadelphia is so important, with so much at stake, for them to feign otherwise.
They know their margin for error is nearly nil, what with the Flyers leading the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with 97 points. That's five more than the fourth-place Penguins, and Philadelphia has a game in hand.
The game tonight is the first of two remaining meetings between the teams with the end of the regular season just 2 1/2 weeks away. The Penguins have nine games left, Philadelphia 10.
"You're not looking at the standings every day. It's different at different times of the year -- maybe you lose a couple in a row, maybe you don't want to look," Penguins center Craig Adams said. "But you realize when we're not that far behind. If we want to catch them, we've got to make some hay in these two games."
The Penguins and Flyers play again Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
Game: Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers, 7:08 p.m. today, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), http://penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Boucher for Flyers.
Penguins: Have won three road games in row. ... Penalty-killing, which ranked No. 1 most of season, fell to three-way tie for second (85.9 percent) before games Wednesday. ... Alex Kovalev has gone nine games without a goal.
Flyers: Are 4-4-2 in March. ... Andrej Meszaros is plus-6 over past four games and Jeff Carter has 16 goals in past 25 games. ... Kris Versteeg broke seven-game goal drought Tuesday.
Of note: Flyers are 14-3-1 against Atlantic Division teams, fewest intradivisional losses in Eastern Conference.
There could be a bit of jockeying among the top five or six teams in the East late in this stretch run, but the Penguins aren't all that mobile.
Because the division champions get the top three playoff seeds in each conference, the Penguins can only move up from fourth place if they overtake Philadelphia.
"Catching Philly and getting home ice would be two big factors," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
They can lose home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs only if they fail to overtake the Flyers and someone else passes them. They have a three-point lead over fifth-place Tampa Bay, and each team has played 73 games. The Penguins play at Tampa March 31.
The Penguins' scope is fairly narrow compared with that of several other Eastern clubs. Some are still clamoring to be among the eight that reach the postseason. That's not a major concern for the Penguins, whose magic number for clinching a playoff spot is seven points with eighth-place Buffalo and five points with ninth-place Carolina.
They smell a bigger prize.
"We need to do all we can to catch [the Flyers]," winger Chris Kunitz said. "It's a huge game for us. We need to carry the momentum and try to have our best game of the year.
"Right now, we need to just win. We know that there are teams behind us that are close, but we know that we are within grasp of Philly if we can beat them both times."
The Penguins have been hanging tight -- 5-2-2 this month -- despite the absence of several key players to injury, including forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Brooks Orpik.
The Flyers are without veteran defenseman Chris Pronger, who had hand surgery, and enforcer Jody Shelley, who is expected to have surgery today for a broken orbital bone on the left side of his face.
Philadelphia also has something of a goaltending dilemma. Neither rookie Sergei Bobrovsky nor veteran Brian Boucher has clinched the starting job for the playoffs.
Not only does the game tonight have standings and playoff position implications, but it also is being played between two bitter rivals. The Penguins and Philadelphia played the first four of their six-game season series over the first two months and have not met since Dec. 14, a 3-2 Flyers win.
The Flyers have won three of the four games, all by 3-2 scores, with the Penguins winning, 5-1, Oct. 16 at Wells Fargo Center.
While there is no pretense among the Penguins, there doesn't seem to be much pressure weighing on them, either.
Defenseman Ben Lovejoy is strapped in and ready for the ride.
"This is fun," Lovejoy said. "They've been kind of the class of the Eastern Conference for a majority of the year and certainly the second half of the season. They're where we want to be.
"This is a team that we want to catch before the end of the year, and then we want to beat them in the playoffs.
"Certainly, Philly's a huge rival, an in-state rival. It will just be all that more emotional because the playoffs are so close, and we want to beat them."
First Published March 24, 2011 12:00 am