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Winning Atlantic within Penguins' grasp

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
REUTERS
Maple Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens (right) makes a save against Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis, as he crashes over defenseman John-Michael Liles during the third period on Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Toronto.

The Penguins have accomplished many things in the past five years, from winning a Stanley Cup to erecting Consol Energy Center, and many highs and lows in between.

One thing they haven't done since 2008 is raise an Atlantic Division banner.

That oddity appears likely to change by the end of April.

The Penguins are running away with the Atlantic Division – they currently lead the New Jersey Devils by nine points – and, with eight of their next nine games at home, have an opportunity to put away the race during the next two weeks.

“It would be nice,” center Sidney Crosby said. “We've been in this situation a couple of times where we had good years but didn't end up getting one of the top spots. We should keep that in mind.”

The Penguins have been the No. 4 seed during each of the past four NHL postseasons. That position worked out perfectly in 2009, when they emerged from the Eastern Conference playoff battle and won the Stanley Cup.

However, the Penguins would much prefer to take their 2008 path to the Stanley Cup Final, when they were the No. 2 seed and enjoyed home-ice advantage in each of their first three series that spring. They went ahead of the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, 2-0, respectively, in each of those meetings.

“Home ice is really important,” Crosby said. “This is something we need to maintain.”

Powered largely by their seven-game winning streak, the Penguins have pulled away from the usually rigorous Atlantic Division field.

While the Penguins' 20-8-0 record speaks for itself, the division has not been as potent as in previous seasons.

New Jersey has slipped with goaltender Martin Brodeur injured and sits nine points behind the Penguins. The Rangers – they'll visit the Penguins on Saturday at 1 p.m. – entered the season as co-favorites with the Penguins for the division crowd but have stumbled to a 13-11-2 record, and sit 12 points out of first.

Philadelphia, another annual contender, finds itself in last place with only 25 points.

“We're in a good position right now and we've just got to keep going,” left wing Tanner Glass said. “Winning the division isn't the ultimate goal, but it's the first step, and it's a big step. You want the division, conference title and the President's Trophy in the regular season.”

The words “President's Trophy” haven't been uttered around the Penguins' locker room this season because of the Chicago Blackhawks' dominance and because, frankly, the team is well aware that winning the overall regular-season standings does not often translate well to postseason success.

Still, the Penguins are only seven points behind the Blackhawks for the most in hockey.

“That's doable,” Glass said. “That roll we're on, we feel like anything's doable.”

With a victory against the Rangers on Saturday, the Penguins would pull 14 points ahead of the team expected to battle with them for the division crown. One day later, Boston visits Consol Energy Center for the second time in five days, and the Penguins could finish off a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Bruins – the team they may battle for the No. 1 seed – with a win.

“Obviously this is a big weekend,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Winning the division is definitely something we want to accomplish.”

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