Penguins-Hurricanes Preview

The Associated Press

The visiting Pittsburgh Penguins will still be without a few key stars when they take the ice Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.

With the way the Hurricanes have struggled lately, it might not matter.

Pittsburgh, recently receiving a spark from former Hurricane Jussi Jokinen, will try to hand Carolina a 13th loss in 14 games and top the only Eastern Conference team it has yet to beat this season.

The Penguins (29-10-0) became the first team from the East to clinch a playoff spot - their seventh straight postseason appearance - on Sunday due to Buffalo's win over New Jersey. Tuesday will be their first contest since a 2-1 shootout win over the Rangers on Friday. Jokinen, acquired from Carolina last week in a deadline deal, scored the Penguins' only goal and also provided the lone shootout score.

Pittsburgh is still without NHL points leader Sidney Crosby, who hasn't been cleared to return to practice and is out indefinitely after suffering a broken jaw against the Islanders on March 30.

James Neal will also be absent for the team's three-game road trip after he sustained a concussion Friday. Chris Kunitz will take Neal's spot on Pittsburgh's second line, playing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla.

Neal had just three points in his last 12 games but is third on the team with 32.

"There's definitely a void on the ice, in the locker room," Kunitz said. "He's the kind of guy that will come around and chirp guys, make things a little lighter in the dressing room. On the ice, his ability to create space for himself and shoot a puck is something this team hasn't seen for a while."

The Penguins did receive good news Monday as Kris Letang skated for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury and missing the last five games. Letang could return this week.

"There's no rush to get back, but at the same time it's a short season," said Letang, who has 28 points. "I want to start playing, being healthy and ready to go for the playoffs."

With an abysmal slide down the stretch, Carolina (16-20-2) appears set to miss the postseason for a fourth straight year as it sits eight points out of the conference's final playoff spot.

The Hurricanes, who have dropped seven straight at home, have scored 20 goals and allowed 51 in going 1-11-1 over the last 13 games. They have also fallen into three-goal deficits in their last three, including a 6-2 loss at Boston on Monday.

"We've got to find a way to dig deeper," left winger Drayson Bowman said. "It's very frustrating. We've got to come out and keep fighting; eventually we'll get the first goal."

Carolina has won three of its last four at home between the teams, including 4-1 in the first meeting this season on Feb. 28, when Jiri Tlusty scored twice and Eric Staal recorded a goal and two assists. Kunitz scored for the Penguins.

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