The New York Rangers know they'll have home-ice advantage for as long as they're alive in the Eastern Conference playoffs, while the Pittsburgh Penguins are hoping to at least open the first round in their own building.
Getting two points Thursday night at Consol Energy Center would ensure that, as the Penguins look for a fourth consecutive victory over a Rangers team that will claim the Presidents' Trophy with wins in its final two games.
Pittsburgh (49-25-6) was the only team that could catch New York for the East's top seed heading into Tuesday's action, but the Rangers took care of business before the Penguins had a chance to make things interesting Thursday. New York scored four times in the first period en route to a 5-3 win at Philadelphia, sweeping the Flyers and locking up the No. 1 seed for the first time since their Stanley Cup-winning edition in 1993-94.
"It is a special moment," Marian Gaborik, who scored his team-leading 41st goal, told the Rangers' official website. "To win the division and the conference is definitely good, and it shows that all year long we have been consistent. We don't want to let up. We want to tune up for the playoffs."
Though the Penguins can no longer get the top seed, the Rangers (51-22-7) may have done them a favor. The Flyers had crept within a point of Pittsburgh for the East's No. 4 seed with Sunday's 6-4 win at Consol, but they're now three back after the Penguins won 5-3 in Boston on Tuesday.
"Toward the end, I'm sure guys were taking a peek a little more at the out-of-town scoreboard," said Sidney Crosby, who had two goals and an assist. "But I think, for the most part, we've got to worry about ourselves and getting points."
Pittsburgh's magic number for home ice in the opening round is two, so a win Thursday or a Flyers' regulation loss to Buffalo that same night will wrap it up. Both clubs losing beyond regulation also would give the Penguins the fourth seed without having to worry about Saturday's regular-season finale against Philadelphia.
Though the Rangers have clinched home ice in the East, the Presidents' Trophy is up for grabs. New York and Vancouver are tied with 109 points, though the Rangers own the tiebreaker due to more non-shootout wins. St. Louis is also still in the mix.
It's not clear how much motivation coach John Tortorella is placing on finishing with the league's best record, but his club may want to send a message to Pittsburgh for a potential playoff meeting. After dropping the series' first two games, the Penguins have outscored the Rangers 11-3 in winning the last three.
Evgeni Malkin has been the driving force, posting four goals and an assist with a plus-5 rating. With 105 points, Malkin has the scoring title all but locked up, but he needs two more goals to become the 16th player in franchise history with 50 in a single season.
The Rangers would love to see Ryan Callahan, who missed a 5-2 home loss to Pittsburgh on March 15, get on the scoresheet. Since the start of last season, they're 5-0-1 against the Penguins when Callahan records a point and 1-4-0 when he's been held without one or been sidelined.
Pittsburgh saw Boston backup Marty Turco on Tuesday and will likely see Rangers backup Martin Biron in this matchup. Henrik Lundqvist had his right arm wrapped in ice following Tuesday's win after being struck by a shot in the second period.
Biron hasn't played since the loss to the Penguins three weeks ago. He's 2-4-1 with a 4.07 goals-against average in his last seven starts against Pittsburgh, a stretch in which Crosby has five goals and 10 assists.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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