Islanders-Penguins Preview

The Pittsburgh Penguins may have missed their chance at winning

the Atlantic Division title, but there’s still plenty of meaning to

the finale of their six-game homestand.

The Penguins play the last regular-season game at aging Mellon

Arena on Thursday night against the New York Islanders knowing a

victory will ensure they open the playoffs at home next week.

Pittsburgh (45-27-7) was tied with New Jersey atop the Atlantic

on March 27, seemingly putting itself in good position to win the

division heading into the second-longest homestand in team

history.

The Penguins have hardly been impressive thus far in closing out

the 39-year-old arena, however. Pittsburgh began with a 4-1 victory

over Philadelphia but has split its last four games, needing

last-minute rallies to beat Toronto and Atlanta and looking far

from sharp in losing to Tampa Bay and Washington.

The biggest problem for the Penguins has been their poor starts.

Pittsburgh allowed the first goal for the eighth consecutive game

in Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Capitals, and fell behind the Devils,

who were victorious in Atlanta.

“We kept having to restart and try to get back to our game, and

that was tough,” coach Dan Bylsma said of the Penguins’ early

deficits.

Pittsburgh can still clinch the No. 4 seed and home ice in the

first round of the playoffs with a win over the Islanders

(34-35-10), but that will be much easier if it can get Evgeni

Malkin back in the lineup. The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner

missed five straight games with a bruised right foot before

returning with a goal and an assist against Atlanta, but Malkin was

sidelined again due to illness against the Capitals.

Both he and under-the-weather defenseman Sergei Gonchar are

game-time decisions.

New York would certainly prefer if Malkin sat out once again.

The 2008-09 Art Ross Trophy winner has five goals against the

Islanders this season and 11 goals and eight assists during an

11-game point streak in the series.

The Penguins are 9-1-1 in those games, but Sidney Crosby – who

has five goals and 12 assists in that stretch – isn’t taking

anything for granted considering they’ll also close the regular

season on Long Island on Sunday.

“The Islanders are playing some good hockey,” said Crosby, who’s

tied for the league lead with 48 goals. “They’ve knocked off a

bunch of teams that are really desperate for points. … (We need)

to realize that our game needs to be at a certain level, and it

doesn’t matter who we play.”

New York’s recent play backs up Crosby’s statement. The

Islanders have won three in a row and five of six, with the latest

coming in come-from-behind fashion against Montreal on Tuesday.

Frans Nielsen’s goal with 2:01 left in the third period tied the

score and his shootout tally gave New York a 4-3 win.

“Even though we’re out, everybody is loose,” said Sean

Bergenheim, who has four goals and four assists in his last five

games. “We’re playing with more of a positive atmosphere with

winning games. When we’re down and we still get the win, I think it

shows that this team has grown.”

Martin Biron has been in goal for the Islanders’ last four wins,

but he’s 4-8-2 with two ties and a 3.43 goals-against average in

his career in Pittsburgh.

Marc-Andre Fleury will be back in net Thursday after getting

pulled against Washington. Fleury has a 1.20 GAA in winning five

straight home starts against the Islanders.