By Mike Lipka
Pittsburgh (42-27-9) at Florida (38-29-11), 5:00 p.m. EDT
SUNRISE, Florida (AP) -- With a victory Sunday, the Pittsburgh
Penguins' roller-coaster season will be certain to end with a
third consecutive postseason appearance.
The Florida Panthers would eventually like to join them.
Pittsburgh will have to go through a motivated club if it wants
to punch its ticket to the postseason Sunday in Florida, where
the Panthers can move into a tie for eighth in the Eastern
Conference with a victory.
This season hasn't gone how the young Penguins planned after
their trip to the Stanley Cup finals last year, but they're
15-2-4 since interim coach Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien
on Feb. 15.
They've already beaten the Panthers twice during that run,
including a 4-1 win in Sunrise, Fla., on March 5.
The timely surge has put Pittsburgh (42-27-9) six points ahead
of ninth-place Florida (38-29-11) in the East. Both teams have
four remaining games, meaning the Penguins can clinch a playoff
spot with any kind of victory Sunday.
Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss at Carolina was a rare instance in
the last month when Pittsburgh's prolific offense was relatively
quiet, but the team managed a point even though neither Sidney
Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin found the scoresheet.
Malkin failed to convert a penalty shot with the game tied in
the third period and Pittsburgh remained in sixth place in the
East, two points behind both Philadelphia and the Hurricanes.
"We're playing well, and it's not fun to lose, but I think if we
realize we play that way every game, we're going to see some
more pucks go in," Crosby said. "We're going to be tough to
In the 15 games before Saturday's contest, the Penguins had
averaged 3.8 goals, with Crosby and Malkin each notching seven
goals and 13 assists over that span and newcomer Chris Kunitz
contributing seven goals and eight assists.
The team scored six goals on New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur in
a win Wednesday, but didn't have as much success against
Carolina's Cam Ward.
"I think we would have liked to have buried some of our chances,
but I think, pretty often, when you play like that, you're going
to see some good results," Crosby said. "Unfortunately, we ran
into a hot goalie tonight."
The same could be said of Florida's Craig Anderson, who has
started four straight games over Tomas Vokoun. Anderson won the
first three, but gave up a pair of third-period goals in the
Panthers' 3-1 home loss to Atlanta on Friday night.
Vokoun has lost seven of his last eight starts to draw Florida
coach Peter DeBoer's ire, but the coach said he was unsure which
goalie would start Sunday.
Whichever the choice, a lot of responsibility will fall on that
player's shoulders. Seeking their first postseason berth since
2000, the Panthers are two points behind the eighth-place New
York Rangers. The teams will each have three games remaining
after Sunday's contest.
After scoring 15 goals - six on the power play - during the
three-game winning streak, Florida's offense sputtered against
the Thrashers. The Panthers were 0-for-4 with the man advantage
and Gregory Campbell's second-period tally was their only goal
on 36 shots.
"Nothing seemed to be working and we didn't feel that mojo on
the bench that we've had in the past, for whatever reason, I
don't know what it was," DeBoer said. "But we're still alive
here in the last week of the season. We're two points out of a
playoff spot and a lot of hockey left."