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Injury-depleted Penguins face last-place Devils

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a goal more important than securing a win and another two points in the standings when they face off with the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night at Prudential Center.

The Penguins (49-19-11) would like to come out of the game physically unscathed, something the injury-ravaged club has not been able to do too often as of late.

Heading into Thursday's contest with the Devils (28-37-14), Pittsburgh lists eight players on its injured list. Forward Bryan Rust is the latest injured Penguin; he suffered a lower-body injury Tuesday in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The playoffs start next week, and the defending Stanley Cup champions hope to get back most those players -- including superstar center Evgeni Malkin, sparkplug winger Carl Hagelin and top-six defensemen Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley.

With Washington's victory Wednesday night, the Penguins cannot finish higher than second place in the Metropolitan Division. They face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, though it is still to be decided which club will have home-ice advantage.

However, one extremely important Penguin will miss the playoffs as the club announced Wednesday that defenseman Kris Letang, who already missed 20 games, will have season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck.

"Right now, it's hard to swallow," Letang said before the team traveled to New Jersey. "It was not expected. Like I've done in the past, I'm going to put my energy into getting better."

The oft-injured Letang is a dynamic offensive defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup champion. His loss is major for the Penguins as they attempt to win a second straight title.

"This guy is a great teammate," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said about Letang. "We will have him around the team as much as we can. I'm sure he can lend some insights."

Despite all the injuries, the Penguins keep rolling along. They come into Thursday riding a three-game winning streak, one victory shy of 50.

Having Sidney Crosby healthy and playing at such a high level certainly helps.

Crosby leads the NHL with 43 goals and is third with 86 points.

So, the last-place Devils have their hands full Thursday, even against Pittsburgh's depleted roster.

New Jersey has one win in its last seven games -- a 1-0 overtime victory Tuesday over the Philadelphia Flyers on John Moore's career-high 10th goal -- and just three since Feb 19., a span of 21 games.

"It's been a tough time, but an important one, evaluating young players while still trying to win games," Devils coach John Hynes said.

One of those players evaluated by the Devils' hierarchy is backup goalie Keith Kinkaid, who earned his first shutout of the season Tuesday while appearing in his career-high 25th game.

"Sometimes you just have it, and I was in the zone and feeling good," Kinkaid told NorthJersey.com.

Kinkaid and No. 1 netminder Cory Schneider alternated starts in the previous eight games, and Hynes indicated after practice Wednesday that Schneider will start against the Penguins.

New Jersey expects to have two injured forwards return to the lineup Thursday as both Miles Wood and Jacob Josefson practiced Wednesday and declared themselves ready to go.

"Obviously, I'm excited to be back and to get a few games under my belt before the season ends and go into the offseason with a positive feeling," Josefson told NorthJersey.com. He had missed the past 17 games with an upper-body injury.

The Penguins seek to sweep the season series. Pittsburgh has won three games in regulation and one in a shootout so far, scoring 18 goals in the process. Crosby has five goals and eight points in those four games.

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