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The Pursuit of First

Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 5:23 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
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The Pursuit of First
The Rangers have something the Penguins want, and that’s first place in the Eastern Conference.

And to get it, the Penguins must start by earning a win on Thursday night when the two clubs meet at Madison Square Garden.

“If we want to move up in the standings, we have to go through them,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It all starts (Thursday).”

When the Penguins last played the Rangers on Feb. 21 at CONSOL Energy Center, the Blueshirts had a 10-point cushion on Pittsburgh – what seemed virtually insurmountable at the time.

But with a nine-game winning streak beginning that night with Marc-Andre Fleury’s franchise record-tying 22nd shutout, the Penguins had actually whittled that lead down to two points as recently as Sunday afternoon with their win over Boston.

Though the Rangers have built it back up to six points with wins on Sunday night and Tuesday, the Penguins’ hopes of reaching the top aren’t yet extinguished.

But with only 14 games left in the season, they know that those aspirations could be squashed if they don’t beat the Rangers both Thursday and in their sixth and final meeting on April 5 in Pittsburgh.

“Winning this game is real critical for us if we think we can catch the Rangers and get to the top of our division and hopefully top in the conference,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We have a game in hand. They’re six points ahead of us. The tiebreaker is the Rangers’, so we have to get ahead of them. Gaining four points in the remaining two games against them I think is critical to put ourselves in a position where we could be two points back of them. We’d have to gain that ground in the 12 games remaining for our team.”

While Thursday’s tilt isn’t Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in terms of stakes, it’s certainly more than just Game 69 of the regular season. The contest certainly won’t be lacking in dramatics with the return of captain Sidney Crosby from a 40-game absence, but it’s also the kind of meaningful hockey players look forward to all year through a tiring, grinding schedule.

“Everyone is pretty excited,” forward Joe Vitale said. “Not to be silly and think that it’s a bigger game than it really is – it’s another game with two points up for grabs. But you look at your opponent, you look at the standings, you look at how much hockey is left. Obviously we wanted to win the conference from the beginning and we have to go through these guys to get there.”

Though the Rangers have been the model of consistency all season and have been in first place for such a long period of time because of that, the Penguins aren’t necessarily looking at this game as a measuring stick.

It’s more about making a statement.

“Certainly they’re a good team, but we’ve been right there with them this whole season,” Niskanen said. “We’re 2-2 against them. So they’ve certainly been one of the better teams in the league the whole year, but I think just looking forward to the playoff seeding and sending a message for how we’re going to play and continuing to play good hockey on our end (is our goal).”

And the Penguins hope they can do that both Thursday and on the rest of their three-game road trip that has them visiting two more Atlantic Division rivals in New Jersey (Saturday) and Philadelphia (Sunday).

“These are teams we’re going to see in the playoffs,” forward James Neal said. “You want to leave a dent on them and you want to play them really hard. It’ll be fun. You work all year to play games like this. It’s exciting and a good boost for our team getting (Sidney Crosby) back. Hopefully we can continue to keep playing well and keep this streak going, because there’s a good feeling around the room and our team is playing well right now.”
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