PITTSBURGH -- Just a few weeks ago, Thursday night's game at CONSOL Energy Center, the penultimate game of the regular season for the Rangers and Penguins, was expected to be a defining match in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers erased that possibility by clinching the No. 1 seed in the East with a 5-3 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday as the Penguins slipped, losing two consecutive games to the Islanders last week. That means the game is now more important to the Penguins, who will try to clinch the No. 4 seed. The Penguins have 104 points and the Flyers 102, with each team having two games remaining and facing each other on Saturday.
Martin Biron (12-5-2, 2.38 GAA and a .906 save percentage) is expected to start for the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist, who started 10 straight games, suffered a swollen right forearm on Claude Giroux's one-timer late in the second period Tuesday. It would be Biron's 20th start of the season, and his 500th NHL game. He last started March 15 when the Rangers lost to the Penguins, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden (Lundqvist had the flu). In his 15-year career, Biron is 13-16-3-2 with a 3.02 GAA and two shutouts against the Pens.
Rangers coach John Tortorella, while praising his troops for earning the top seed, wants to fine-tune some elements of the team's game Thursday night and in the season finale at the Garden on Saturday against the Capitals, who are tied with Buffalo at 88 points for the No. 8 seed. The winner will face the Rangers. "The real stuff starts next week," Tortorella said.
For the Penguins (49-25-6), who beat the Bruins on Tuesday with Brent Johnson in net, it appears No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will return. Defenseman Brian Strait was recalled from the AHL as a potential replacement for Matt Niskanen. The status of Joe Vitale, who took a puck in the face Tuesday, and Steve Sullivan, who was limping after the game, is unknown.
Notes & quotes: Marian Gaborik, one goal away from tying his career high of 42, has a six-game point streak . . . The Rangers have 24 road wins; 25 would set a franchise record . . . Mike Rupp's neck is sore from a pummeling he took from Jody Shelley in the Flyers game but could play.