Penguins face titanic clash in the Atlantic Division
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There are any number of story lines attached to the Penguins' game tonight against New Jersey at Mellon Arena.
We have the Penguins' streaks at home, four wins in a row and at least a point in seven games in a row (5-0-2) and in 12 of their past 13 (9-1-3).
- Matchup: Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils, 7:38 p.m., Mellon Arena.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Martin Brodeur for Devils.
- Penguins: Are 6-2 in past eight games. ... RW Petr Sykora has 9 points (5 goals, 4 assists) in past six games. ... C Evgeni Malkin is one point shy of 100.
- Devils: Were 12-3-3 in past 18 games before playing Islanders last night. ... 20 road wins is tied for second most in Eastern Conference. ... Leading scorer Zach Parise had 1 point, an assist, in four games before last night.
- Hidden stat: The Penguins have 11 players with 10 or more goals, tied with Edmonton for most in NHL going into last night.
Or there's center Evgeni Malkin's quest for 100 points -- he needs one -- and the NHL scoring championship (he was three points behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin through yesterday).
Perhaps the return of enforcer Georges Laraque from a three-game suspension is intriguing.
And, oh yeah, the game against the Devils happens to be for first place in the Atlantic Division, with the start of the playoffs pretty much within smelling distance.
Maybe that last one should go first.
"We need those two points," forward Jordan Staal said after practice yesterday at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins and New Jersey are tied atop the Atlantic with 91 points each, including 42 wins each, after the Devils lost, 3-1, last night to the New York Islanders.
"We have a really confident team, so it's fun to play those games for first place," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "Most of the games we play lately, it's always for first place, but now it's [head-to-head] with New Jersey for first."
The matchup is only heightened by the fact that the teams meet again Tuesday in Newark.
A sweep for one team in those two games could give one of the clubs a big boost in the contest for the division -- and Eastern Conference -- title.
A split could give someone else, say the surging New York Rangers, an opening to move up and rub shoulders with the Penguins and Devils.
Winning the division would guarantee the Penguins a home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs, which begin April 9 or 10. If the division title is good for the conference title, it would mean home ice for at least three rounds.
"We're playing to finish first," Laraque said. "We're not just playing to make the playoffs. We look at where we are, and we could have home-ice advantage, which is huge."
Whatever happens tonight could help set the tone for the rematch Tuesday, which is the last of eight regular-season games between the Penguins and Devils. The Penguins trail in the series, 2-3-1, so winning both games would help if tiebreakers come into play.
"If we can give them a good game, it's going to prepare us for playing over there -- playoff hockey again," Letang said.
In the interim, the Penguins will have to guard against overlooking Monday's game against the Islanders in New York, something Devils coach Brent Sutter talked about for his team going into last night's game after New Jersey had a tough, 2-1, shootout loss Wednesday against the Rangers.
"We've got a lot of depth and a lot of leaders," Staal said. "That will really help."
The Devils could be without second-leading scorer Patrik Elias, who is questionable for the game. He returned to practice Thursday after missing a week because of a bruised kneecap but also is coming off a flu bout.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock the Devils put up is goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur is 3-2 against the Penguins this season, but lately has been playing like the future Hall of Famer he is. Going into last night, he was 5-1-1 with a 1.80 goals-against average in his previous seven games.
He has accounted for 40 of his team's 42 wins -- his NHL-record seventh 40-win season.
"What he's doing year after year, there's not many goalies who could do that," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "You always think, well, this year Marty's going to have a fair year, but the guy is so good at what he does."
The Penguins counterpart for tonight, Marc-Andre Fleury, has not had his best games against the Devils. This season, Fleury is 0-2 with a 3.56 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage. In his career, he is 4-10-2, 2.97, .907.
"It's such a good challenge," Fleury said of facing Brodeur. "He's such a good goalie. He can win a game by himself almost."
Therrien put out a call for a little help to counter Brodeur and the Devils.
"We're going to need our fans to be really loud," he said. "I know my players. They feed off the fans. ... It's not a coincidence the last month and a half we've been successful [at home] -- our fans are really loud."
First Published March 22, 2008 12:00 am