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It almost defies logic, but somehow the Pittsburgh Penguins are first in the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of New Jersey, despite losing all five games to the Devils this season.
The teams' season series finale is tonight in Newark, and this is a game that has all kinds of meaning for both teams.
The Devils, with a game in hand, can tie the Pens for the division lead and head into the playoffs with the confidence of a 6-0-0 sweep of the reigning Cup champs. (Put that card in the deck and pull it out later in the spring, if you know what I mean.)
The Pens need a win to put a little space between first and second place in the Atlantic and, perhaps more important, know they can finally beat Martin Brodeur and his team this season.
"Our players know exactly the situation and where we're at," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told ESPN.com on Tuesday before the team's flight got off the tarmac in Pittsburgh. "We know what this game is for, what's at stake and how close they are. This game will be real important as to where we end up."
And winning the division also hands that team the likely second seed in the East for the playoffs, whereas the Atlantic Division runner-up likely gets the fourth seed. Perhaps I'm looking too far ahead, but barring any upsets (I know, I know), that means the Atlantic Division winner avoids Washington until the conference finals.
But back to tonight's game. The X factor is whether star Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (leg) plays. He did not skate Tuesday.
"We'll see [Wednesday] morning how he's doing," Bylsma said. "Day to day, even in our ambiguous world, is pretty accurate. I'm still kind of hoping for [Wednesday]. There's still a chance."
With or without Malkin (he has no points in four games against the Devils this season), the Pens will again have their hands full. Here's a recap of the season series:
Oct. 24 at Pittsburgh: 4-1 Devils
Nov. 12 at Pittsburgh: 4-1 Devils
Dec. 21 at Pittsburgh: 4-0 Devils
Dec. 30 at New Jersey: 2-0 Devils
Friday at New Jersey: 3-1 Devils
"I think the common theme so far is that we've had a difficult time maintaining our focus on playing our game," Bylsma said. "Especially the first four -- they got leads, they got a power-play goal, and we weren't generating the kind of space and room and offensive-zone time that we like. We get a little frustrated and we don't stay with the plan. That's really been the common theme in the games against them and that'll be the challenge when we face them again [Wednesday]: How long can we play our game and stick with our game?"
More on the season series from our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau:
• Pittsburgh had the shot edge in four of the five games (33-26, 26-25, 35-30, 32-33, 35-32).
• The Penguins have gone 0-18 on the power play, the Devils 3-16.
• The Devils are just the third team in NHL history to win their first five games against the defending Stanley Cup champion in one season. The other teams to do that were the 1938-39 Bruins, who won all eight games against the Blackhawks (1938 Cup winners), and the 1943-44 Canadiens, who won the first six games they played the Red Wings (1943 Cup winners).
• Brodeur is 5-0-0 with a 0.60 goals-against average and a .981 save percentage (three goals against on 161 shots); Marc-Andre Fleury has played and lost four games (4.04, .857, 14 goals against on 98 shots).
As Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review told me Tuesday, the story in this season series has been Brodeur.
Much has been made this season of Brodeur's apparent second-half slump and his big-stage demotion at the Olympics, but don't tell the Penguins that. All they see is the game's all-time winningest goalie shutting the door on them.
"Well, we're not questioning him," Bylsma said with a laugh. "His numbers are unbelievable. What he's done in his career is close to mind-boggling. He's always been able to elevate his game. And certainly, we've seen that from him this year. He's been very good. I think he's been the same ol' Marty for us."