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Starkey: Pens' seeding doesn't matter

| Thursday, March 29, 2012

It is a manufactured drama, this chase for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that the Penguins regain full health and sound mind.

As for drama, well, a bit of it unfolded Wednesday at practice. Coach Dan Bylsma went to the chalkboard more than a high school geometry teacher and finished the workout by reminding his players that their in-game approach of late is not acceptable.

He told them, loud enough for everyone in the near-empty Consol Energy Center to hear, that each has been too "careless" with the puck.

I asked Bylsma to expound on that.

"Put it this way," he said. "Trying to get Matt Cooke his 20th goal is no way to play the game. We're spending a lot of time trying to score goals with every puck we touch."

That is the issue. Worrying about seeding and the NHL's playoff format is, as Bylsma put it, "talk for radio shows (don't I know it) and bar-room fodder."

After witnessing the Penguins' elimination loss to Tampa Bay last season, I vowed to never again get caught up in the late-season, home-ice story line.

It truly doesn't matter.

Haven't we watched the Penguins lose consecutive Game 7s at home• Didn't we see the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup at Vancouver last season, two years after the Penguins won deciding games in Washington and Detroit?

The Penguins set a goal to finish first. I get that. But there is no way that carrot can evoke playoff-like desperation.

As for the popular notion that the top seed is especially important this year because it could enable the Penguins to avoid a first-round matchup with the Flyers, sorry, I'm not buying.

The theory goes like this: A bloody matchup against Philly would not only represent the Penguins' best chance to lose but also sap their strength for later rounds.

That's one way to look at it.

I say if you've got the stuff to win it all, you might as well find out early. Jump right into the rapids.

"If you're going to be the best team, you're going to have to beat all the best teams," said defenseman Brooks Orpik. "I don't think it matters when you play the (Flyers). We played them first round in 2009, and obviously we did all right after that. I think they had a much more physical team then than they do now.

"I think it's more important to just start playing the right way, a little tighter, because it's tough to turn that switch on and off."

Who's to say a first-round matchup against the Flyers wouldn't prime the Penguins for a marathon run• Even finishing the regular season behind the Flyers wouldn't be the worst thing. The Penguins, after all, have never beaten that team in Consol Energy Center.

Projecting NHL playoff paths is as fruitless as analyzing the NFL schedule in July.

"If you finish first, you get Buffalo in the first round right now, which I don't know if anybody really wants," Orpik said. "They're playing better than anybody, and they have a goaltender (Ryan Miller) who can win games even when they're not playing well."

Healthy, the Penguins can win anywhere, any time — but they must guard against this habit of falling in love with themselves. You saw the overpassing and egregious turnover-making in the 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

Perhaps Bylsma, a voracious reader, could remind his players of the story of Narcissus. According to Greek mythology, Narcie (his hockey nickname) was so enamored by his reflection in the water that he could not walk away. He stayed there so long that he died at the edge of the pond.

Talk about an upset.

Meanwhile, the Islanders and Ottawa Senators created multiple odd-man breaks by sending forwards on fly patterns and stretching the Penguins' defense.

"They can stretch us all they want," Cooke said. "It won't matter if we manage the puck the way we should."

Something tells me the situation won't repeat itself tonight on Long Island. Certainly not in the postseason. The crucible of playoff hockey makes every team more defensively conscious.

Especially those that have won before.

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