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Penguins squander chance to clinch playoff berth

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist (72) and center Evgeni Malkin (71) hang their heads after Islanders right wing Michael Grabner (40) scores in the third period Friday, April 10, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins forward Chris Kunitz skates away as Islanders forward Casey Cizikas celebrates his short-handed goal in the first period Friday, April 10, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a glove save on Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey (not pictured) in the second period Friday, April 10, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak makes a third-period save on Penguins center Brandon Sutter (16) on Friday, April 10, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (11) defends Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (14) in the third period Friday, April 10, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins defenseman Taylor Chorney (44) defends Islanders right wing Cal Clutterbuck (15) on Friday, April 10, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.

Chances have been there. In numerous ways, too. Not only shots but opportunities to clinch a playoff spot. Probably more of the latter than the Penguins would have preferred.

Nonetheless, following a 3-1 loss to the Islanders on Friday at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins will be afforded one last chance to reach the postseason.

Beat Buffalo Saturday, and they're in.

“That's why we play 82 games, to decide after that who are the top eight teams,” forward Patric Hornqvist said. “Huge game (Saturday).”

The Penguins also can advance with a Boston loss. Or an overtime/shootout loss at Buffalo, combined with a regulation loss by Ottawa at Philadelphia.

By falling to the Islanders, the Penguins lost out on a chance to finish third in the Metropolitan Division.

Now, it will be the first or second wild-card spot, depending on whether the Penguins win Saturday and a mess of other possibilities.

In play as possible first-round opponents should the Penguins advance are the Canadiens, the Lightning and the Rangers.

The Penguins threw 38 shots at Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak, but only one — by Rob Scuderi — sneaked past. The Penguins also held a 69-41 edge in shot attempts.

Still, they suffered a fifth consecutive loss, the first time since January 2010 that's happened with Sidney Crosby in the lineup.

“You have to trust that it's going to go in,” Crosby said. “Getting frustrated or trying to change the plan is not going to help anything. We believe in the way we play.”

The Penguins (42-27-12) haven't had much puck luck of late.

Or any.

They came into this one 3-7-2 over their past 12, averaging just 1.8 goals per game during that stretch.

Since March 6, when the Penguins won in regulation at Anaheim, they had only three regulation wins.

But somehow, primarily thanks to the Bruins' loss to the Panthers on Thursday, Friday presented an opportunity to get in.

Instead, John Tavares, who's tied with Crosby for the NHL scoring lead with 84 points, struck early in the third to put the Islanders (47-28-6) ahead for good.

Now, Saturday night in Buffalo. Coach Mike Johnston said the lineup would be game-time. He didn't commit to Marc-Andre Fleury as the starting goaltender.

Fleury seemed to have other ideas.

“It doesn't matter,” Fleury said of playing on back-to-back nights. “I'll drink a lot of water. I'll rest. And I'll show and do my best (Saturday).”

With the status of Derrick Pouliot (upper-body) up in the air, the Penguins again could go with five defensemen, which seems like peanuts given their recent inability to score.

“We have to score goals,” Johnston said.

If the Penguins do make the playoffs, a Metropolitan Division opponent — the Rangers — could be next, which isn't a good thing.

Friday's loss was their sixth in a row to a Metropolitan Division team. They hold a minus-15 goal differential in those games.

The Penguins started strong and held a 31-10 edge in shot attempts after 20 minutes.

Scuderi scored late in the second to equal a first-period goal from Casey Czikas, the Penguins' 11th shorthanded goal allowed this year, but the momentum Scuderi's first tally in 181 games provided quickly died.

Letting things slip through their fingers has become an all-too-common theme of late for the Penguins.

And it's put them on the precipice of potentially advancing to the playoffs lugging with them a six-game losing streak.

“We need to play our best game,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “It's not about the other team. We have to play our game and build on some of the positives that we've had in the last few games.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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