The Pittsburgh Penguins’ hopes of grabbing the Eastern Conference’s top seed are long gone, and now the Philadelphia Flyers’ chances of getting home-ice advantage in the first round are over.
That doesn’t mean both teams don’t have goals in mind for the final two games of the regular season.
As the visiting Flyers try to reverse their third-period woes Saturday, the Penguins want to see Kris Letang get more comfortable as well as diminish Philadelphia’s confidence against them considering these rivals could meet to open the playoffs.
While Pittsburgh (51-24-5) is locked into the No. 2 seed after winning the Metropolitan Division, the Flyers (41-30-9) had their sights set on the division’s second automatic playoff berth until Thursday. The Rangers wrapped it up thanks to their win over Buffalo and Philadelphia’s 4-2 defeat to Tampa Bay.
"Obviously we wanted to get home ice, that was our goal coming in tonight," said captain Claude Giroux, whose club could end up in a wild-card spot. "We just gotta work on our game and make sure we’re ready to go, it’s not gonna be easy. Better worry about Pittsburgh now."
No East club has been better against the Penguins than Philadelphia, which has won all three meetings after losing the first. No other team has beaten Pittsburgh more than twice.
"I know the boys in this locker room love playing against them," Flyers goalie Steve Mason said after backstopping a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins in March. "Whether we’re in their head or not, we don’t really care."
Letang, though, didn’t play those games as part of his 2 1/2-month absence after suffering a stroke. The 2013 Norris Trophy finalist returned Wednesday, getting 22:30 of ice time and contributing an assist in a 4-3 shootout win over Detroit.
"There are some things I felt good about, some things I have to get my timing back," Letang said. "Hockey is about timing and, I don’t know, maybe it’s going to take a week, maybe it’s going to take two weeks."
His presence could help the Penguins on special teams, an area which has killed them against the Flyers. Philadelphia has a power-play goal in 20 of the past 21 meetings, including its 2012 playoff series win, and has scored one in 13 straight visits to Pittsburgh while going 10-2-1.
The Flyers are 5 for 13 with the man advantage in the season series despite the Penguins owning the league’s second-best penalty kill (85.8 percent).
"Our power play has been successful against them since I’ve been there," Wayne Simmonds said after scoring two power-play goals in a 4-3 win at Pittsburgh in the last meeting. "I think we kind of know where they’re going to come from."
What has Simmonds concerned lately is the Flyers’ late-game problems. They’ve been outscored in the third period in five consecutive games – by an 11-3 margin – after giving up three goals in the final 20 minutes Thursday.
"Obviously that’s gotta change, third periods are gonna be huge come playoff time," Simmonds said. "It starts next game. I don’t think we can really flip the switch."
Philadelphia doesn’t have one third-period goal against Pittsburgh this season, but that hasn’t mattered partly because of its penalty killing. The Flyers have held the Penguins, owners of the league’s top power play (23.7 percent), to 1 for 17 with the man advantage and had a short-handed goal in both matchups last month.
"They are aggressive," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said of the Flyers’ penalty kill. "We know they’re coming, we know they’re pressuring."