Oh, baby, there’s still lots to play for in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with a week to go in the regular season, eh?
Separated by only two points in the Eastern Conference standings as of Friday morning and likely headed for a blockbuster first-round matchup between the state and divisional rivals, home ice is up for grabs between the fourth-place Penguins and fifth-place Flyers.
Oh, and did we mention they play each other twice more before the season wraps up next weekend? They lock heads Sunday afternoon in a nationally televised affair and, of course, end their regular seasons against each other next Saturday, April 7.
Take a bow, Mr. NHL schedule-maker. You got this one right.
"When I saw the schedule come out last summer, I saw the Flyers twice and the Rangers once in the last week of the season," Penguins GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com Friday. "So you look at that and how important that can be, it’s certainly coming down to that. But it’s good for both teams, it means both teams have had good years and both teams are vying for something. So they will be important games, and it always holds more significance if there’s a possibility you may be playing each other in the first round."
The Flyers host the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon before tackling the Pens on Sunday. Unlike some contenders, notably Vancouver, which has found motivation hard to find in March because there’s not much to play for until the playoffs, the Atlantic Division race with the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers and Devils has given those teams plenty to get revved up for.
"Our division has been so strong, there’s still a lot at stake going down the stretch this year,’’ Flyers coach Peter Laviolette told ESPN.com Friday.
And yet, Laviolette said he has made a point not to point to the standings with his group.
"We’ve never once had meetings and talked about catching the Rangers, or had meetings and talked about the Penguins and home ice, we never talk like that," Laviolette said. "We started the month of March knowing it was going to be a busy month and just put the emphasis on getting the two points and the opponent next game."
Laviolette’s philosophy is that the chips will fall where they fall once the regular season is over. There’s no reason to fuss over anything else until then.
"We’ve kept it in the simplest of terms and focused on the points at hand rather than focus on the standings or home ice," the Flyers coach said.
The Flyers, for a while, didn’t think catching the Penguins was a possibility. The Penguins, having won 14 of 16 games at one point, looked destined to catch the Rangers for first in the conference but stumbled this week with three losses in four games, including being swept in a home-and-home by the young Islanders.
"We had gone so long winning games, in this league you’re not going to continue to win games like that," Shero said. "You see Detroit beat Columbus 7-2 the other night then turn around and lose in Columbus the next game. I mean, I really respect the Islanders. They have a good young team. That’s the league. You’re not going to steamroll through the league. It’s not reality."
Noticeably absent against the Islanders was Pittsburgh’s top blueliner, Kris Letang, who hasn’t played since getting dinged last Sunday in New Jersey.
"Everything is fine with him, we’re just being cautious," Shero said. "He got hit from behind in New Jersey and we’re being careful. He was skating on his own in Pittsburgh and we’ll see how he is when we get back Saturday and make some determination on where he is for the last four games of the year."
While the Penguins await news on their top blueliner, the Flyers have a defenseman who’s paid off handsomely since coming over from Dallas in February. Nicklas Grossmann has fit in well in Philly, playing important defensive minutes in a top-4 role and noticeably matching up effectively against Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin the last time both teams met March 18.
"There’s no question he’s a welcome addition to the back end, just based on the injuries we’ve had back there,’’ Laviolette said. "To get a guy like this, he’s a hulking man. We’ve paired him with Braydon Cobourn and we play them against the best players on opposing teams on a nightly basis. There’s no question that ties into our success that we’ve had. Grossmann’s presence back there is felt from a defensive and physical point of view on a nightly basis. When you can send him out there against a Malkin or a [Steven] Stamkos or a [John] Tavares, he’s done a really nice job. He provides such a big presence for us back there.’’
Grossmann and Malkin will be at it again Sunday. And next Saturday. And it would appear for two weeks in April.
Bring it on.