It took some effort, but the Penguins new acquisitions finally made their way to the Steel City. The inclement weather that passed through the area on Monday made travel all but impossible and the plane carrying James Neal and Matt Niskanen had to be diverted to Newark, where the duo spent the night.
After another delay yesterday morning the duo arrived in Pittsburgh ready to get to work with their new team. They went through their physicals, had their head shots taken, met with their new coaches and hit the ice for a Tuesday afternoon skate.
Two days in the making, they finally got a chance to hit the ice with their teammates on Wednesday morning and both players will be in the line-up this evening when the Penguins face-off against the red hot San Jose Sharks.
James Neal will skate his first shifts as a Penguin with Jordan Staal on the team’s top line. They will be joined by Pascal Dupuis, who is no stranger to playing right wing on the top line.
Neal will also get extensive time on the Penguins’ top power play unit. He will join Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang and Brett Sterling on the first grouping.
Matt Niskanen will slide into the third defensive pairing with Deryk Engelland. I am not sure how much ice time he will log this evening, as he is seemingly having some difficulty getting his head around the defensive responsibilities in Dan Bylsma’s system. Bylsma didn’t seem to be too concerned, but mentioned during his media session this afternoon that he had asked Brooks Orpik and a couple of the other defenders to meet with Niskanen to help him gain an understanding of what he has to do.
The Penguins are anxious to get their new assets in play, especially based on their inability to score goals as of late. They are hoping that Neal might pay immediate dividends. However, most comments coming out of the team this afternoon speak to the fact that they don’t want to place too much pressure on their new arrivals. Especially considering that they have only been able to log one practice with the team to this point.
The team also got a boost by seeing several of their wounded birds get a lot closer to rejoining the flock. Chris Kunitz, Arron Asham, Mark Letestu, Mike Comrie and Paul Martin all skated this morning.
Kunitz was thought to be available as soon as this weekend, but Ray Shero put some doubt on that assessment during an appearance on NHL Live this afternoon when he mentioned he could be two weeks away. I think that he might have misspoken, but…
Mike Comrie is set to rejoin the team within three weeks and could help the cause if he is able to come close to performing as he did during training camp.
Mark Letestu is set to rejoin the team as soon as this weekend, but it is thought that he will likely return next week.
Though there is still no timetable for Sidney Crosby to return to the line-up, the team is definitely getting healthier, which can only be a good thing.
Overall, the team has done a nice job of treading water while they have dealt with a series of injuries. Though they have logged just two victories in their last ten games, they have maintained the fourth position in the conference. If they can get back on track now, especially with their team health improving, home ice in the first round is still a major possibility.
The team will definitely have its hands full this evening against a Sharks team that is coming into its own. They have won four in a row and are getting some amazing goaltending from Antti Niemi. Niemi is expected to get the start this evening, going head to head with Marc Andre Fleury.
I will be live at the CONSOL Energy Center bringing you all of the action… stay tuned for more soon…
Lines for this evening:
Neal — Staal — Dupuis
Rupp — Talbot — Conner
Cooke — Talbot — Kennedy
Sterling — Vitale — Wallace
Orpik — Letang
Lovejoy — Michalek
Niskanen — Engelland
Matt Niskanen said that no one has harassed him about his fight earlier this season with Sidney Crosby. Though Ray Shero made light of the situation during his appearance on NHL Live saying that Crosby reached out to Neal and Niskanen as he does with all new acquisitions, but Sid joked that he never heard back from Niskanen.
James Neal is very excited about joining the Pittsburgh Penguins and said he couldn’t “have come to a better team.” Also mentioning that he has made it a point to watch the Penguins on multiple occasions this season.
Shero stated that he would still like to bring in another forward, but that he won’t be utilizing his first round draft to do so. Mentioning that if the right rental is out there, he might consider it.