Some might say the Pittsburgh Penguins are getting a respite for their final four regular-season games before heading into the playoffs. After all, the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres are also-rans in the East Division.
The Penguins (34-15-3, 71 points), who on Monday play the first of two games in two nights at Philadelphia (22-22-7, 51 points), don’t see it that way.
“Anytime you get to the end of the year, heading into the postseason, every game is important,” said Pittsburgh top-line winger Bryan Rust. “Every game is huge. You have to build that playoff mindset, that playoff (style of) game that’s going to help you succeed in the postseason.
“That’s our focus here down the stretch going into these last four games. We’ve got to build that playoff (style of) game.”
The Penguins seem to have been doing that recently. They are coming off a two-game sweep in Washington that officially got them into the playoffs and boosted them past the Capitals into first place in the East.
Saturday, they got two standout, unassisted goals from Rust and a 24-save shutout by goaltender Tristan Jarry in downing Washington 3-0. It certainly could qualify as a playoff-style win.
It’s possible if not likely that Penguins second-line center and core player Evgeni Malkin will return from a suspected knee injury in one of the games against the Flyers.
There still are tangible reasons for Pittsburgh to be at its best against the likes of the Flyers and Sabres.
“We’re playing for home-ice advantage going into the playoffs,” Penguins defenseman Cody Ceci said. “I think that will be huge, especially a year like this. We have four games left, and we’re going to make a push for that.”
Pittsburgh is 20-4-2 at home.
For the next two games, though, the Penguins will be in Philadelphia. That normally triggers one of the fiercest and nastiest rivalries in the NHL, a cross-state feud that goes back decades.
In a rarity, the rivalry might not be as meaningful – at least not for the visitors.
The Flyers just got swept in three games by the New Jersey Devils, another non-playoff team, and are 5-8-3 since the start of April.
Philadelphia’s season collapsed after a strong start that included sitting ahead of Pittsburgh for a stretch of time.
Perhaps playing the Penguins will give the Flyers a spark.
“The guys care in [our] locker room,” Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux said. “I don’t think there’s laziness on the team. I think that when one thing goes wrong, there’s always a second and third thing. I don’t think laziness is part of this.”
Still, with five games remaining, the Flyers might need a spark to avoid simply playing out the season, whether that’s getting a snarl on for the Penguins or playing for standing on the team next season or perhaps for a new contract.
That might not be easy.
“We’re not winning a lot of hockey right now,” Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault said. “And when you’re not winning a lot of hockey, confidence is an issue and a factor.”
–Field Level Media