I am not able to attend this evening’s game against the Lightning, as I will be checking out one of my all-time favorites – Henry Rollins. Rollins is bringing his spoken word tour through Pittsburgh and though I have seen and heard it on CD/DVD over the years, I have never seen him do it in person. It Couldn’t be missed…
Anyway, since I am taking the evening off, our good friend Angela Carducci, who covers the Penguins and NHL for Inside Hockey, was gracious enough to do tonight’s game preview.
Angela has contibuted to multiple outlets over her years covering the team including the great Goal Magazine! She has a regular segment on Team 990 in Montreal on Saturday evenings during the hockey season and covers the Pens for Fox Sports online during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can catch up on Angela’s every day gig at Inside Hockey here…
Pens’ Final Six Begins Tonight vs. Lightning
The Penguins are coming off a successful weekend where they took four of four possible points from the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs. For a team that’s struggled with consistency for much of the season, that’s something to build on as Pittsburgh hopes to get on a roll heading into the playoffs.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, meanwhile, tonight’s visit to Mellon Arena is the last in a four-game road trip that started on a high note with a 5-3 win in Boston, then saw the Bolts end up on the wrong end of a 7-1 blowout in Buffalo. The frustration continued for the Lightning last night, when they were edged out in Columbus, 3-2.
That means Pittsburgh will have a potentially tired opponent on its hands tonight, not to mention one that’s likely looking forward to getting back home after nearly a week on the road. But the Penguins can’t afford to look past the Lightning, even if they are 10 points out of a playoff spot and 3-7 in their last 10. Nor can they afford to look past the other teams below them in the standings, the Atlanta Thrashers and New York Islanders, both of whom the Penguins play twice in this final six-game stretch of the regular season.
“I think you can look up and down the lineups, and these are some of the teams that are going to be the hardest teams to play against,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “There are young guys who are getting called up, they’re full of energy and they’re trying to make a good first impression. Those are teams that can be really dangerous at the end of the year.”
The Lightning won’t be making the postseason this year, but, like many non-playoff teams, they would surely relish the role of spoiler. That especially figures to be true for former Penguins Ryan Malone – the Upper St. Clair native and second-generation Penguin who had the misfortune of entering unrestricted free agency at the same time as Pittsburgh needed to place a priority on trying to resign Marian Hossa – and Rick Tocchet, whose hard-nosed coaching style recalls his days as a player. (That’s assuming Malone is able to return tonight; he’s missed 10 games since having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.)
The Penguins officially clinched their playoff spot over the weekend, but there’s much more to play for. That includes first place in the Atlantic Division, a spot for which they’ve been playing leapfrog with the New Jersey Devils for the better part of the season; the winner of that battle will likely finish second in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey lost to the Bruins in overtime last night, putting them one point behind the Penguins.
More importantly, though, Pittsburgh needs to string together some wins to enter the playoffs with confidence. They won’t be going in on an 18-3-4 tear like they did last year, but just knowing that they’ve consistently found a way to get to their game – playing an aggressive style, managing the puck well, wearing opponents down with their speed – would go a long way.
“I think that you want to be at the height of your game,” said winger Matt Cooke. “Last year, our game got to such a level the last 25 games that we felt so confident going into the playoffs. I think we’re still pushing to get there.”
The Penguins lead this year’s season series with the Lightning, 2-1.
Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar determined at the morning skate that he isn’t yet ready to return; he’ll miss his fourth consecutive game due to a bout with strep throat. Evgeni Malkin will also miss his seventh game of the last eight with a foot injury. Geno resumed practicing Tuesday, along with Gonchar, but coach Dan Bylsma is in no hurry to rush him back into the lineup and would prefer to make sure his star center is fully healed for the postseason.
Offensive-minded defenseman Kris Letang has been inconsistent for much of the season, but seemed to rise to the challenge as he took on increased playing time with Gonchar out for the past several games. The Penguins expect Letang to play inspired hockey down the stretch after locking in his future in Pittsburgh with the four-year, $14 million contract extension he signed Tuesday.
Cooke has had two goals in his last two games, and Pittsburgh’s trade-deadline acquisitions are paying dividends as winger Alex Ponikarovsky and d’man Jordan Leopold both have three assists in their last three games. Captain Sidney Crosby is on a point streak with two goals and four assists for six points in his last three games. And winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who’s struggled at times this year, is on a mini-hot streak with five points (2G, 3A) in his last six games.
For the second time in less than a week, Tampa played with just five defensemen Tuesday. Already missing blueliners David Hale and Matt Smaby, the Lightning’s situation took a turn for the worse in Columbus as they also lost rookie d’man Victor Hedman to a lower body injury.
The Bolts will surely be glad to see the month of March come to a close. It’s been brutal for them, with a record of 4-10-1 plummeting them to second-last in the Eastern Conference standings. The Penguins, meanwhile, continue their trend of dominance at home down the stretch. They’re 5-0-1 at Mellon Arena this March, and a combined 30-2-3 at home in March and April since the 2006-07 season.
Watch out for Tampa’s power play. With a 19.3 percent conversion rate, it’s 7th best on the road, 9th overall in the NHL. If Pittsburgh can goad the Lightning into penalties, however, the odds are on their side as Tampa’s power play is the league’s fifth-worst on the road, 21st overall. And the Lightning are apt to spend a lot of time in the box – they’re tied for third-most penalty minutes in the league.
The Penguins’ penalty killing has been excellent lately, killing off 42 of its last 45 times shorthanded (93.3 percent), including a stretch of 34 straight. It’s allowed only one power-play goal in the last nine games. The much-maligned power play has also been a little more consistent, scoring at least one goal in 10 of the last 16 games, going 11 for 53 (20.8 percent).
Vinnie Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos lead the Lightning with three points each in the three games against the Penguins so far. Three other players – Tampa point leader Martin St. Louis, Steve Downie and Mattias Ohlund – are tied with two points apiece.
For the Penguins, Gonchar and Crosby have three points against the Lightning so far this year; Gonchar has the game-winning goals in both Pittsburgh wins. Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal each have two points.
Penguins Career Milestones Within Reach Tonight
After racking up two goals against Toronto Sunday, Crosby sits at a league-leading 47. With three more, Crosby would become the first Penguin to reach 50 since Jaromir Jagr scored 52 in 2000-01.
Cooke has tied his single-season career high with 15 goals; he’s now one point shy of his fifth 30-point season.
If defenseman Jay McKee is in the Penguins’ lineup tonight, it will be the 800th game of his NHL career.