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Penguins' fate rests in their hands

| Monday, March 24, 2008

Minutes after a 7-1 victory over New Jersey at Mellon Arena on Saturday, a win that afforded them an opportunity to control their own fate in the Atlantic Division, the Penguins were well aware that their latest triumph already meant very little.

"It was making a statement," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "But the statement was that we needed to finish them off in this game and know that we'll see them again at least once in the regular season and maybe in the playoffs.

"It's a long season, and we've still got a long way to go. That's the statement."

The Penguins' regular-season ending tour of the Atlantic Division continues tonight in Uniondale, N.Y., with a game against the New York Islanders at 7. They will face the Devils in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday. The Islanders will visit Mellon Arena on Thursday, the Rangers on Sunday, and the Penguins will play in Madison Square Garden next Monday before wrapping with a home-and-home series against Philadelphia on April 2 and 6.

"In many ways, these final weeks are like a trial run for the playoffs," defenseman Darryl Sydor said. "You're playing a lot of games, sometimes back-to-back, against opponents you hate, opponents that know your tendencies. I know a lot of people don't like all the division games to end the season, but for us, there's nothing better."

The Penguins are 43-25-7 with 93 points - first in the Atlantic and second overall in the Eastern Conference. Due to various NHL tiebreakers, they are the lone Eastern club that can guarantee itself home-ice advantage by winning out.

"You probably never count on winning every game, but we've worked hard to get ourselves into the position where we have the final say for home-ice," defenseman Ryan Whitney said.

At 35-14-5 since Thanksgiving, including 8-5-1 in the division, the Penguins' quest to play potential Game 7s at home through at least three playoff rounds is noteworthy because statistics suggest they perform best when inside the NHL's oldest arena.

They are 23-10-5 at Mellon Arena, which rates the East's best home mark. They average 3.32 goals per game at home and have scored 25 over the past four contests.

Road to the Cup
A look at how the Penguins' special teams efficiency on the road compare to the past five Stanley Cup champions:
Team, season Road PP percentage (rank) Road PK percentage (rank)
Penguins, 07-08 18.2 (13) 77.1 (27)
Ducks, 06-07 21.1 (1) 86.7 (2)
Hurricanes, 05-06 18.8 (5) 83.1 (9)
Lightning, 03-04 16.5 (10) 84.8 (7)
Devils, 02-03 8.8 (30) 86.0 (4)
Red Wings, 01-02 16.2 (9) 88.4 (1)
Source: NHL

It's not that the Penguins are bad outside of Pittsburgh. Their 20-15-2 mark ranks in the top third among 30 clubs. However, they average fewer goals per game at 2.89 and are essentially .500 against potential playoff clubs at 12-11-1.

The main issue for the Penguins, both over the final regular-season weeks and in the playoffs, is their alarming home-away disparity regarding the penalty kill.

The Penguins entered yesterday rated 24th in the league with an 80.4 overall kill efficiency rate. Their 84.6 percent rate at home was sixth, but their 77.1 percent on the road was 27th.

"The big thing for us all year has been that we haven't killed penalties on the road," Orpik said. "We've just got to be better."

They have been of late - allowing only two power-play goals in their past four road games. However, they have killed only 30-of-49 penalties (61.2 percent) in their past 10 road games.

Rather remarkably, they are 5-5-0 over that span.

Credit a road power play that rated 13th at 18.2 percent despite captain Sidney Crosby, who paced the league with 61 power-play points last season, missing 26 of the past 29 games due to a high right ankle sprain.

"Our power play could decide where we finish in the conference," Whitney said. "If we get hot - like, say, two goals every game, which we can do with the talent we have - it can really make the difference.

"It could help us win all our games."

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