PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins’ next game will open the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Based on what happened Saturday night, it looks like they’re ready.
James Neal returned to the lineup after an eight-game absence and had his third career hat trick to help the Penguins beat the Carolina Hurricanes 8-3 at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins broke open a tie game with a five-goal third period and finished the regular season 36-12-0.
“That’s outstanding,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “The team has done an amazing job of winning in different ways with different people in the lineup. We’ve shown we can win a lot of different ways. Thirty-six wins put us in a spot where we want to be. We have the No.1 seed. Now you can erase the 36 wins and we’re focused on getting four wins.”
Their first-round playoff opponent won’t be determined until tonight. It’s between the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The team that faces the Penguins in the opening best-of-seven series will have its hands full.
“We’re excited,” Neal said. “We still have a bad taste in our mouth from last year, and we’re ready to go.”
Since winning the Cup in 2009, the Penguins have had three straight years of postseason disappointment. As defending Cup champions, they fell to Montreal in the second round in 2010, losing the last game at the Civic Arena.
The next year, minus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins were eliminated in the first round by Tampa Bay.
Last year their defense fell apart, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a temporary meltdown and the Penguins were bounced in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.
After playing listlessly in the two previous games, the Penguins blew the Hurricanes away in the third period.
“We’re going into the playoffs and we wanted to have our best period,” Neal said. “We wanted to feel good going into (the playoffs). We said that, and we had our best period.”
The Penguins effectively ended the game with three goals in 3:48 early in the third. It appeared Carolina had scored, but the goal was negated by a goalie interference penalty against Jared Staal.
The Penguins broke the tie on that power play, with Neal taking Chris Kunitz’s pass and wristing a shot in off a goal post.
Kunitz set up the next goal by banking a pass off the boards to send Malkin and Neal on a 2-on-1. That ended with Neal dropping to one knee on the right side and beating helpless goalie Justin Peters.
The outburst was capped by Brenden Morrow’s goal 1:10 later. Morrow tapped in a Brandon Sutter pass for an easy goal and a 6-3 lead.
Matt Cooke and Jussi Jokinen added goals later in the period.
Neal had been slumping prior to the time a concussion forced him out of the lineup, scoring just one goal in 13 games. He finished the night with four points and credited familiar linemates.
“When you’re playing with guys like Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, you know you’re going to get some chances,” Neal said.
That line accounted for nine points and 16 of the Penguins’ 35 shots on goal.
Defenseman Paul Martin also returned to the lineup after missing 14 games with a hand injury that required surgery. Martin played 23:31, had two assists and was plus-2.
Jokinen had two goals, giving him seven in 10 games with the Penguins. The irony of Saturday’s production is the Hurricanes are paying part of his salary as a condition of his April 3 trade to Pittsburgh.
Aside from the identity of their first-round opponent, the questions for the Penguins are about their remaining injured players. Defenseman Brooks Orpik missed his second game with an undisclosed injury, and Sidney Crosby sat out his 12th with a broken jaw.
Crosby is skating while wearing a football-style face guard and awaiting the OK from doctors to play.
“I’m just trying to keep in shape,” Crosby said. “I can’t play until I’m cleared. It’s not something I can really control or do something to heal more and accelerate the process. I’m just trying to make sure I’m in good shape and ready for whenever that is.”
Malkin scored the first goal, which was his second power play goal in 20 games. … The Penguins were 7-0 against the Southeast Conference. … Jordan Staal played his first game in Pittsburgh as a visiting player. The Penguins had a scoreboard tribute to his years in Pittsburgh. … The Penguins scored on five of their 10 shots in the third period.