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Penguins, Rangers slumping for different reasons

NEW YORK -- On the bright side, the Pittsburgh Penguins have already clinched a playoff spot and still have a very good chance at earning home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The defending champions are poised to go on another deep Stanley Cup run.

On the flip side, as they pay a visit to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers on Friday night, things could not be going worse with the playoffs less than two weeks away.

The Penguins have lost four straight -- they were drubbed at home 5-1 by the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night -- and are without eight players due to injuries, including Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

"I don't think we can worry about who is back when, it is just making sure we play the right way so when guys do come back in the lineup it is an easier transition," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told the team's web site. "I think as a group going into the playoffs, you want to make sure you are playing the right way so a couple games doesn't change a lot. We know how we need to play. We know our game so we just have to make sure we are better."

While Malkin and Letang won't be back to face the Rangers, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Thursday there's a good chance forward Jake Guentzel and defenseman Ron Hainsey will return. Guentzel, who has 11 goals and 25 points in 35 games, has not played since March 21 because of a concussion. Hainsey was acquired at the trade deadline to help with the depleted blue line but has not played since March 15 due to an upper-body injury.

Hainsey and Guentzel are game-time decisions, but all that matters to the Penguins is getting back as many of their banged-up players as possible before the postseason.

"We have a lot of important guys out of our lineup right now, a lot of our top players," said Conor Sheary, who missed 13 games with an upper-body injury, to the team's web site. "For them to be fresh come playoff time could be a huge boost for us."

While the Penguins are three points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and still have hope of moving up the standings, the Rangers are entrenched in the first wild card spot. The Rangers are six points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan but have played one more game.

The Rangers clinched a playoff berth Tuesday, but did so in a 5-4 overtime loss to San Jose that saw them blow a late 4-3 lead to the Sharks. They have dropped six of eight and have lost seven in a row at home. The Rangers lost their first home meeting with the Penguins 7-1 on Nov. 23.

While the Penguins are dealing with injuries, the Rangers are trying to combat inconsistencies in their game.

"Our process needs to be better," New York left winger Chris Kreider said to the Daily News. "It needs to be the duration of the game, everyone. It can't just be a handful of guys every night. If you're gonna win in the playoffs, everyone's got to step up, and every single night a different group or someone needs to raise their game even more. If you have an off night, it can't be a 'C' or 'D' game."

The most inconsistent player of all has been the bedrock for the Rangers for a decade -- goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

His .911 save percentage is the worst of his career and the only reason it has plummeted is because of his past two games. He has allowed 10 goals on 68 shots in his return from a hip injury that cost him nearly three weeks. Lundqvist had been playing his best hockey of the season for more than a month before the injury and now has just five games left in the season to rediscover his form.

"Looking back on the season, I haven't been at my best coming out of breaks," Lundqvist said to the New York Post. "But I'm not looking for any excuses. I need to be better. I need to be at the top of my game on Friday (at home against Pittsburgh)."

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