After limping through their roughest stretch of the season, a relatively easy remaining schedule could provide some relief for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Again working with a shorthanded lineup, the Penguins will have a golden opportunity to rejoin the win column Thursday night against the lowly Carolina Hurricanes.
Pittsburgh (40-22-11) fell to St. Louis 3-2 in overtime on Tuesday for its fifth loss in six games, beating only last-place Arizona in that span.
With 91 points, the Penguins have a comfortable seven-point lead in the Eastern Conference over ninth-place Boston, but they’ve been unable to claim the Metropolitan Division’s second spot from the New York Islanders (93 points) in what amounts to a race for home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason.
"It’s a matter of a goal here or there, a mistake," captain Sidney Crosby said. "That’s really what it comes down to this time of year. Pretty small margin for error."
Injuries continue to hamper the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin will miss his sixth consecutive game Thursday after sustaining a lower-body injury March 14, and Patric Hornqvist (undisclosed injury) will miss his fifth straight. Malkin leads the team with 28 goals, while Hornqvist’s 23 rank third.
Pittsburgh took yet another hit Tuesday when Christian Ehrhoff suffered an upper-body injury, which will likely sideline him against the Hurricanes (26-36-10). Only two players – center Nick Spaling and defenseman Rob Scuderi – have played in all 73 games in 2014-15.
"Four weeks ago, we had our lines together for almost five games. It was a nice feeling," coach Mike Johnston said. "But because of circumstances and situations that have happened, we’ve had to juggle the lines and try to get the most out of our lineup."
Crosby continues to produce despite his ever-changing linemates. Although he was held scoreless against the Blues, he’d recorded 16 points in his previous 13 games – tied for third-most in the league from Feb. 21-March 21.
Crosby could boost his stats against lesser competition the rest of the way with only two of Pittsburgh’s final nine games coming against teams currently in playoff position.
Carolina was officially eliminated from contention with a 3-1 loss to Chicago on Monday, marking its sixth consecutive season without reaching the playoffs.
"I like our team, I really do," coach Bill Peters told the Hurricanes’ official website. "I don’t like our compete on some nights, and on some nights we don’t have 18 guys going. We don’t. That’s the reality.
"But I like our group, our young group and our veteran group. Somewhere in the middle we’ve got to get more out of guys and start on time."
Anton Kudobin has posted a respectable 2.41 goals-against average over Carolina’s four-game slide, but a lack of offense has tanked its chances. The club has managed only four goals on the skid, dropping its season average to 2.24 – fourth-worst in the NHL.
Pittsburgh has taken two of three from the Hurricanes this season and won its fourth consecutive game in Carolina 3-2 on Nov. 29.
Penguins winger Chris Kunitz has not recorded a point in his last 12 games, but has picked up two goals and two assists against the Hurricanes this season.