PITTSBURGH -- James Neal was just happy to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup on Saturday night. He certainly wasn't looking for a hat trick.
Yet the left wing had his third career three-goal game after missing the previous eight games with a concussion as the Penguins used a five-goal third period to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 8-3 in the regular-season finale for both teams at the Consol Energy Center.
"I didn't expect to have this kind of game after being out so long," Neal said. "It's like I always say, when you play on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, you're going to get a lot of opportunities to score. It just felt good to get back out on the ice and have a good skate and get the rust off. I think I'm ready for the playoffs, I think we all are ready."
Pittsburgh ended the regular season with a 36-12-0 record and will enter the playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins will face either Ottawa or the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs, depending upon how the Senators fare Sunday in their last game of the regular season at Boston. If the Senators lose, they will face the Penguins. If Ottawa wins, then the New York Islanders will be Pittsburgh's opponent.
"It really doesn't matter who we play," Neal said. "Eventually, you're going to have to beat everyone anyway if you want to win the Cup. We're going to be ready to play regardless of who we face. We've still got a bad taste in our mouth from last year's playoffs."
The Penguins were bounced in the first round last year in six games by the archrival Philadelphia Flyers.
Carolina finished 19-25-4, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season and the sixth time in seven years. Despite the ugly third period, coach Kirk Muller was upbeat.
"I'm proud of the way these guys have pushed to the end and they'll learn from it and it will make them better next year," Muller said. "When you play a good team like Pittsburgh and you're physically fatigued, they're going to make you pay and they capitalized in the third and we just couldn't sustain that tempo."
Neal scored twice early in the third period to help the Penguins break a 3-3 tie and end their two-game losing streak. He also scored in the second period in registering his first hat track since March 20, 2012 against Winnipeg.
Neal, who has 21 goals this season, scored the game-winner at 1:36, then made it 5-3 at 4:14. He also had an assist to make it a four-point game.
"I thought James played very physical right from the start, especially on the forecheck," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It took a while for him to get offensively but once he did he buried some pucks the way only James Neal is capable of burying them."
Brenden Morrow scored at 5:24, his 12th, to give Pittsburgh a three-goal advantage. Matt Cooke scored an unassisted goal, his eighth, with 4:17 remaining and Pascal Dupuis had his 21st goal with 48 seconds left to close the scoring.
Malkin and Jossi Jokinen, who was acquired from Carolina on April 3 in a trade, also had goals for Pittsburgh. Malkin, Kunitz, Jarome Iginla and Paul Martin each had two assists.
Jokinen has six goals and 10 points in 10 games for the Penguins after having just six goals and 11 points in 33 games with Carolina.
"When you play the last game of the season and go home and 16 other teams are going to the playoffs, it's the worst feeling in the world," Jokinen said. "I'm ecstatic to be in this situation where we're going to the playoffs."
Marc-Andre Fleury made 27 saves for the win.
Kevin Westgarth scored his first two goals of the season for the Hurricanes and Tuomo Ruutu had the other goal. Eric Staal had two assists and led Carolina in scoring for the fourth straight season with 53 points.
The Penguins also got another key player back. Martin, a defenseman, returned after sitting out 12 games with a broken left hand, an injury that required surgery. He played 23:31.
The big question for Pittsburgh remains whether center Sidney Crosby, who has a team-high 56 points, will be back when the playoffs open. He missed his 12th game with a broken jaw, though he has been skating with the team in practice.
Crosby has been held back from any drills involving contact and the Penguins continue to say there is no timetable for his return.
Malkin opened the scoring for Pittsburgh with a power-play goal at 10:49 of the first period. He beat Justin Peters to the glove side with a wrist shot from a tough angle for his ninth goal of the season.
Neal made it 2-0 when he scored his 19th goal at 4:10 of the second period with a snap shot from between the circles.
The Hurricanes got on the board at 12:30 of the second when Westgarth backhanded a rebound past Fleury, who failed to cover a shot by Eric Staal, for his first goal of the season.
With 3:50 remaining in the second, Jokinen restored the Penguins' two-goal lead when he knocked in a rebound of his own missed shot over Peters, who was sprawled.
However, Carolina quickly tied the score by scoring two goals in a 37-second span. Ruutu scored his fourth and Westgarth found the back of the net, both on wrist shots at 17:14 and 17:51.
That made it 3-3 going into the third period. Then the Penguins erupted.
NOTES: Though the Stanley Cup playoffs start Tuesday, the Penguins aren't expected to begin their opening-round series until Wednesday because of a scheduling conflict with a Black Keys concert at the Consol Energy Center. ... Jordan Staal received an extended standing ovation in his return to Pittsburgh. Staal spent the first six seasons of his career with the Penguins and scored 120 goals before being traded to Carolina last June during the NHL Draft. ... Carolina and Pittsburgh will be part of the same division -- yet to be named -- in the Eastern Conference next season along with Columbus, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia and Washington. ... Crosby, center Joe Vitale (lower-body injury) and defenseman Brooks Orpik (lower-body injury) were scratched for the Penguins along with center Dustin Jeffrey, left winger Steve MacIntyre, right winger Beau Bennett, defensemen Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo and goaltender Eric Hartzell. ... Scratches for the Hurricanes were right winger Alexander Semin (concussion), defenseman Joni Pitkanen (heel), left winger Drayson Bowman and defenseman Jay Harrison.