Published April 03, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - While the Pittsburgh Penguins are nearly guaranteed of going into the playoffs as Metropolitan Division champions, their current struggles have sapped away some of the club's earlier momentum.
The Penguins look to get on track and officially wrap up the division title on Thursday night in a road matchup with the Winnipeg Jets.
Pittsburgh has shook off a number of injuries this season to rise to the top of the newly-formed Metropolitan Division. The Penguins own an 11-point lead over the second-place New York Rangers with a game in hand and are 14 points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who have played two fewer games than Pittsburgh.
That big lead comes despite the Penguins having lost four of their last six games and going 8-8-3 over their last 19 tests.
The Penguins take another shot at clinching the division tonight as they need just a single point or a loss of any kind by the Flyers to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh also won the Atlantic Division last season before shifting to a new division in realignment. The Penguins have claimed consecutive division titles just once before in franchise history, doing so in 1992-93 and '93-94.
They had a chance to lock up the division title on Tuesday with a victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, but instead lost a 4-1 decision.
Chris Kunitz provided the lone goal for the Penguins, his 35th of the season, but Marc-Andre Fleury allowed four goals on 28 shots as the club failed to secure a third straight win.
"We all felt like the first 10 (minutes) we were carrying the play," said Penguins forward Sidney Crosby. "The shots were pretty evident of that. For whatever reason we got away from that. Maybe we thought that came easy or thought we could get away with cheating. It didn't work."
Crosby picked up an assist on Kunitz's goal for his league-leading 100th point of the campaign. It marks the fifth time in his career he has reached the century mark in points for a season and did so for the first time since logging 109 points in 2009-10.
The Jets return home following a 2-2-1 road trip, but even that solid swing may not have been enough to save the club's postseason chances. Winnipeg is seven points back of a wild card spot with only five games left to play.
The Jets closed out their trek with a 2-1 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday. Andrew Ladd scored in regulation, then notched the only goal of the shootout.
Ladd clanked a shot off the post and in to beat Thomas Greiss in the second round of the shootout. The Jets then secured just their fourth win in their last 15 games when Phoenix's Antoine Vermette hit the post in the third round.
Ondrej Pavelec made 29 saves as the Jets rebounded to win one night after blowing a 4-0 lead in an overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
"I think it was a mental grind for a lot of guys. If we come up with that win (in Anaheim) we're looking at a 3-2 record and a pretty good trip. I think we learned a lot about ourselves this trip and it was nice to finish off this win," said Ladd.
Winnipeg was down a pair of defensemen in Zach Bogosian and Keaton Ellerby due to injury, while backup netminder Al Montoya also was out due to a lower-body issue.
The Penguins have had a ton of success versus the Jets franchise dating back to the club's time as the Atlanta Thrashers. Pittsburgh has won three straight, six of seven and 18 of the previous 21 meetings, including a 6-5 victory at home on Jan. 5.
Evgeni Malkin, currently out with a foot injury, and James Neal both notched two goals and an assist in that win, while Fleury came up with 29 saves.
Evander Kane had two goals and an assist and Montoya gave up all six goals on 39 shots for the Jets, who have dropped seven of their last 10 at home to the Penguins.
Fleury is 16-5-0 with a 2.39 goals against average in his career versus the Jets franchise, while Pavelec is just 2-11-0 with a 4.35 GAA when facing the Penguins.
Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik is scheduled to skate in his 700th NHL game tonight. He is set to become the fifth player in franchise history to reach that mark and first blueliner.