The top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins will try to avoid closing the regular season on a three-game slide when they host the Carolina Hurricanes in Saturday's clash at CONSOL Energy Center.
Having locked up the No. 1 playoff seed in the East a week ago, Pittsburgh has had little to play for in the final days of the regular season. Still, the club hasn't lost three in a row at any point this season and the Penguins don't want to enter the postseason on a down note.
The Penguins dropped their second straight regulation game in Thursday's 3-2 loss at New Jersey. Pittsburgh scored the first two goals of the game before letting the Devils, who have been eliminated from playoff contention, slowly turn the tables.
Matt Cooke and Jussi Jokinen both tallied for the Penguins, while Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 stops in the loss.
"We have to start playing now. How we're playing now is going to determine how we're playing in the playoffs," Penguins center Brandon Sutter said.
Pittsburgh received some good news on Sidney Crosby prior to Thursday's game, as the team captain and star centerman was cleared for practice. Crosby has been sidelined with a fractured jaw since getting hit in the face with a puck during a game against the New York Islanders on March 30.
Crosby practiced on Friday, but there is still no timetable for his return to game action and there's a good chance he could miss at least the start of Pittsburgh's opening-round playoff series.
"(Returning) is not really up to me," Crosby told his club's official website. "I'll just keep talking with the doctors. It's something they have to feel comfortable with the healing. As soon as they say the word, I'll be ready to go."
Despite missing the last 11 games with the injury, Crosby is still tied for second in the NHL in scoring this season with 56 points (15 goals, 41 assists) in 36 contests.
Pens winger James Neal is apparently closer to returning to the lineup than Crosby and he is expected to return from a concussion on Saturday. It would be Neal's first game since April 5.
Paul Martin (wrist surgery), Brooks Orpik (lower body) and Joe Vitale (lower body) are also battling injuries for the Penguins. Martin also could return from a 12-game absence on Saturday.
Carolina is out of the playoffs for a fourth straight year, but the Hurricanes can gain a point for the fourth straight game in their season finale on Saturday.
After recording consecutive wins against Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders, the Hurricanes nearly played a successful spoiler role in Thursday's game against the New York Rangers. Carolina rallied from down 2-0 to take a 3-2 lead over the Rangers, but wound up losing the game 4-3 in overtime as New York clinched a playoff spot.
Carolina scored two unanswered goals in the second period to tie the game at 2-2 and then grabbed a lead on Jiri Tlusty's goal just 49 seconds into the third. However, Brad Richards was credited with scoring the tying goal on the power play with 2:57 left in regulation and Ryan Callahan's score 2:55 into overtime completed the comeback and sent the Rangers into the playoffs.
Tlusty and Tuomo Ruutu scored for the Hurricanes, while Dan Ellis registered 34 saves in the loss.
"I was pleased with the effort, the way the guys played here tonight," Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller remarked. "I thought we did everything we could being short the way we were."
Carolina forward Jared Staal, the younger brother of Hurricane centers Eric and Jordan Staal and injured Ranger defenseman Marc Staal, made his NHL debut and started on a line with his two siblings. It marked the fourth time in league history three brothers played together on the same team and the first since Peter, Anton and Marian Stastny did so with Quebec in 1984-85.
Jordan Staal will be playing his first game in Pittsburgh since being dealt by the Penguins to Carolina at last year's draft. A former second overall pick by the Penguins in 2006, Staal helped the Pens win a Stanley Cup in 2009.
The Pens and Hurricanes have split a pair of meetings this season, but Pittsburgh has claimed four of the last five encounters in the series.
Carolina has lost four straight in the Steel City and is just 10-10-3 as the road team this season.