Penguins notebook: No. 1 goal might result in being No. 1
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The Penguins have made it clear they want what the New York Rangers have -- first place in the Atlantic Division, which this season also means first place and the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
They went into the game Thursday night against Nashville at Consol Energy Center three points behind the Rangers. They also needed one point to clinch a playoff spot, which coach Dan Bylsma insisted was not a formality.
"At the beginning of the year, it's not a stated goal to make the playoffs because one of our goals is to win the Stanley Cup, so we know we have to make the playoffs, [but] getting into the playoffs is a big deal, and it's not to be overlooked," he said.
There is something else that could be within the Penguins' reach: the Presidents' Trophy, which goes to best team at the end of the regular season. The Penguins entered the game against the Predators four points behind the league-leading St. Louis Blues, with a game in hand on the Rangers and two games on the Blues.
Bylsma, though, insisted his team has not talked about the Presidents' Trophy.
"Not at all. ... Not at all," he said.
In some quarters, winning it is not considered such a great thing in terms of what happens in the postseason.
Others have called it an outright curse.
Since the trophy was first awarded in 1985-86, only seven of the 25 winners have won the Stanley Cup, and only three others made the finals.
The last Presidents' Trophy winner to capture the Cup was Detroit in 2008. The Red Wings beat the Penguins in the finals.
Center Evgeni Malkin won an NHL scoring title in 2008-09, so it probably shouldn't be surprising he went into the game against Nashville leading the NHL with 93 points.
Bylsma pointed to two aspects of Malkin's game that have stood out this season.
One is that Malkin is adept at stripping the puck from opponents at both ends of the rink.
The other, Bylsma said, is Malkin's improvement on faceoffs.
Malkin was poor enough in past seasons that the Penguins sometimes had someone else take defensive-zone draws.
He went into the game with a 47.2 winning percent after a career-worst 38.5 percent last season.
Bylsma said Malkin, a left-handed shot, is winning more than 65 percent of faceoffs in the left circle of the offensive zone.
"We're talking about a guy who was under 40 percent last year. Now he's taking defensive-zone faceoffs as well," Bylsma gushed.
It's a tradeoff former Penguins shutdown defenseman Hal Gill was happy to make.
In a February deal shortly before the NHL's trade deadline, he was traded from Montreal, a hockey mecca whose team is struggling, to Nashville, which is a city geared more to country music than hockey but with a team vying for home ice in the playoffs.
"It's a young team with a lot of potential," Gill, who won a Cup with the Penguins in '09, said of the Predators.
"It's definitely a welcome change. It was tough in Montreal, not getting wins.
"It's been fun here. But there's a lot of work to do. It's exciting right now."
Center Joe Vitale and goaltender Brent Johnson skated before the Penguins game-day skate. It was the third day in a row for Johnson, who has an unspecified injury and missed his 14th consecutive game. It was the first day back on the ice for Vitale, who missed his third game because of what is believed to be a shoulder injury. ... Five forwards -- Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Steve Sullivan and Arron Asham -- were the only players who didn't participate in an optional morning skate. ... The Penguins wore a No. 3 sticker on their helmets in memory of former Nashville tough guy Wade Belak, who died last summer. ... The Penguins' healthy scratches were forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi and defenseman Ben Lovejoy.
First Published March 23, 2012 12:00 am