The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been unkind to the Pittsburgh Penguins in recent years. A win Tuesday in Carolina can help to buck that trend.
The Pens take on the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night in Raleigh, where a win will lock up the Atlantic Division title and home-ice advantage through two rounds of the postseason.
After clinching a playoff berth earlier this week, Pens coaches, management and players can continue to stick by the party line they've recited all season: get the first four wins.
"What we've talked about is getting to the playoffs and getting four wins," Ray Shero has said. "Just win four games. Then we're going to get onto the next four games. That's all we're going to do."
An annual contender, Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff series since 2010. The Pens have finished second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference in four straight seasons, drawing first-round matches against the Flyers (twice), Senators and Lightning in 4-versus-5 Quarterfinals series'.
Pittsburgh won its only Atlantic Division title in 2007-08, the first of two consecutive trips to the Finals.
However, after winning it all in 2009, the Pens have lost three consecutive postseason series', the last two in the first round against Tampa Bay (2011) and Philadelphia (2012). While parity has seen lower-seeded teams make deep postseason runs more regularly (the Kings won it all as an 8th seed in 2012), the difference between facing a typically-strong fifth seed and facing a club that just snuck in to the dance is no small consideration.
In 2008, Pittsburgh drew the 2-7 match-up and swept the Senators out of the dance in four games. From 2009-2012, they've played series' of six, six, seven and six games, respectively, and have lost in the first round in the last two seasons.
The Lightning and Flyers, the last two teams to eliminate the Pens from the postseason, each finished the regular season with 100 or more points.
Currently, the Rangers and Islanders occupy the last two playoff seeds in the East. While the Rangers have picked things up of late, those teams have a combined 2-7-1 record against the Penguins.
The first overall seed is no sure thing. Montreal is just three point back of the Penguins with a game in hand, and Boston is within striking distance as well. However, Pittsburgh is the runaway leader in regulation/overtime wins (26) and owns perfect records against both Northeast contenders, all-important tiebreakers should the first seed come down to it.
Locking up that favorable position starts with a win against the Hurricanes.
It's the first game in three days for the Penguins (29-10-0, 58 points). They'll be facing the NHL's version of Three Mile Island in the Hurricanes (16-20-2, 34 points), who have lost 12 of 13 and fallen from third to 13th in the East.
Carolina took the only other meeting between the teams this season so far, 4-1.
It was that loss to the Hurricanes that spurred the Penguins on to their 15-game March winning streak. Prior to back-to-back losses to the Sabres and Rangers last week, the Hurricanes were the last team to have beaten the Pens.
At the time, the Hurricanes were surging, leading the Southeast and making good on their offseason acquisitions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin in their bid to return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Instead, the wheels have fallen off in Carolina, as one injury after another has brought the Canes into the draft lottery discussion. They currently sit eight points out of eighth place with just ten games remaining.
Cam Ward, Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk are on injured reserve, while Semin missed Monday's 6-2 loss to the Bruins with what's been described as a day-to-day injury.
Pittsburgh, too, has caught the injury bug. James Neal is the latest scratch for the Pens, having been diagnosed with a concussion after absorbing a reckless elbow to the head from NYR's Michael Del Zotto—an elbow that the NHL's disciplinary gentlemen failed to diagnose as punishable.
Neal, with Sidney Crosby and Paul Martin, won't accompany the team on their three-game road trip.
Kris Letang, who has missed five straight with a lower-body injury, practiced with the team on Monday and could make his return against the Hurricanes. The Pens are 3-2-0 in Letang's second absence this season, one that looms even larger in conjunction with Martin's stint on the IR.
Martin (broken wrist) and Letang (groin, broken toe) had been among the league leaders in scoring by defensemen before injuries derailed their campaigns.
The forward lines will also be shuffled with the loss of Crosby and Neal. Monday, Evgeni Malkin took line rushes between Jarome Iginla and Chris Kunitz, while new Penguins center Jussi Jokinen practiced between Brenden Morrow and Pascal Dupuis on the new second line.
Following Shero's busy trade deadline and the recent injury spate, half of the team's current top-six forwards weren't with the team this time last month.
The new additions will have a chance to make their mark against the Hurricanes, who rank 28th in the NHL in both goals against per game and penalty killing percentage.