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Penguins reclaim Eastern Conference lead

Monday, March 31, 2008

Jordan Staal would rather forget how it felt last season to open the Stanley Cup playoffs away from the comfortable surroundings of Mellon Arena.

"It was just so tough," Staal said. "The intensity of the crowd for Game 1 in Ottawa and everything -- it was just to another level. We all felt it."

The Penguins are feeling it at home lately, and that could prove a considerable advantage in their chase for the Cup.

A 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Sunday assured the Penguins of no worse than the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs.

At 46-27-7 with 99 points, they lead Montreal by a point in the East. Due to various NHL tiebreakers, the Penguins would clinch the Atlantic Division title with a victory tonight against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

"That's what we're looking for," defenseman Hal Gill said. "The biggest thing is we want to play well going into the playoffs. But, yeah, we want to win it (tonight)."

A victory at the so-called "world's most famous arena" would also guarantee the Penguins at least the second seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice through two rounds of the playoffs.

Opponents have not found Pittsburgh a friendly city to visit of late. The Penguins are 18-2-3 in their past 23 home games, and their 25-10-5 overall mark at Mellon Arena is by far best among Eastern clubs.

"I've noticed a swagger with the way this team plays (at home)," Gill said. "For whatever reason, we have great confidence in this building."

Right wing Marian Hossa (his 29th goal) and centers Evgeni Malkin (46) and Max Talbot (11) scored against the Rangers yesterday -- pushing the Penguins' home goal total to 132.

The Penguins average 3.30 goals per game at home, compared to 2.82 on the road, where they are 21-16-2 overall, but only 11-10-1 against potential conference playoff foes.

"I really didn't know that," captain Sidney Crosby of the Penguins' .500 road record against possible Eastern playoff opponents.

Crosby recorded two assists yesterday. It was only his second game back following an absence in 28 of 31 due to a high right ankle sprain.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury improved to 9-1-0 since returning from his high right ankle sprain injury Feb. 28. He stopped 26 of 27 shots yesterday. His save percentage over his past 15 starts is .954, and he is 13-1-0 since Nov. 24.

Fleury has registered a 2.19 goals-against average at home in 16 appearances. He has allowed only 17 goals in his past 12 home games.

The Penguins have surrendered only 2.38 goals per game at Mellon Arena, compared to 2.95 on the road.

"I wouldn't know why the numbers would be like that," Crosby said. "Usually at home, you try to open up the game more -- but our (statistics) kind of go against the grain.

"That's fine. We want to be strong at home."




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