Pittsburgh Penguins (10-3-3) at Carolina Hurricanes (5-8-3)
RBC Center, 7 p.m.
TV: FS-Carolinas, ROOT Sports
Remember what I said yesterday about trying to be optimistic? The Canes are making it hard for me to do that. It's not just because they have lost five in a row and failed to score more than two goals in each of those games, but also the fact that injuries are piling on. Joni Pitkanen is out week-to-week with a foot injury and I can't stress out huge of an injury this is. The Canes do have a lot of NHL-quality defenders at their disposal but Pitkanen is the backbone on this defense. He plays in all situations, leads the team in time on ice and is actually keeping his head above water in corsi on a team that is getting shelled at even strength. This also means that someone else is going to have to step up and take over the minutes that Pitkanen plays. As much as everyone doesn't want to hear it, that someone might be Tomas Kaberle. He hasn't been used in that role in awhile but I'm all for giving it a shot and he, along with Jay Harrison, played the most minutes on defense last night against the Rangers. Let's see how Kaberle does when he's not protected as much as he has been this year.
Also of note is Paul Maurice hinting that Eric Staal could see some time at wing tonight. I'm all for trying anything at this rate because Staal just can't seem to find his way onto the score sheet no matter what. His underlying numbers have improved a lot in the past couple weeks but the results haven't come yet so why not shake things up a bit? Everyone's guess is that Brandon Sutter will center his line and I like that idea because Sutter has a lot of offensive potential but he has been used in a more defensive role ever since being on the Hurricanes. Let's see how he does when he's not buried with defensive zone starts for a change. His 21-goal season a couple years ago was mostly due to a high shooting percentage but he's a great skater and has shown some goal-scoring ability so I'm all for giving this a shot. Carolina is going to need all the help they can get against Pittsburgh tonight.
Lines, analysis and more after the jump
Boychuk - Staal - Ponikarovsky
Ruutu - Jokinen - Skinner
Dwyer - Sutter - LaRose
Stewart - Brent - Tlusty
Allen - Gleason
Kaberle - McBain
Joslin - Harrison
Sullivan - Malkin - Neal
Kunitz - Staal - Dupuis
Cooke - Park - Asham
Tangradi - Vitale - Adams
Letang - Martin
Engelland - Orpik
Niskanen - Picard
Getting to know the Penguins
The fact that this team was able to make the playoffs despite having two elite talents injured speaks volumes about how good they are. Hell, the fact that they started the year 10-3-3 without their best player is impressive enough. They've been solid in just about all areas with a corsi rate of 53.3% with the score tied and have been solid at both creating and preventing chances. The guys leading the way in driving possession are Jordan Staal, James Neal and Chris Kunitz with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Steve Sullivan and (gasp) Richard Park also having good years. Other players injured for the Pens are Tyler Kennedy and Zbynek Michalek, the latter might have more of an impact because Orpik usually commands a lot of tough minutes and has had do make due with Derek Engelland (5th-6th d-man at best) as his partner.
James Neal's gotten a lot of buzz from the media and rightfully so because he has been lights out on both the powerplay and at even strength. I think Alex Goligoski has helped the Stars a lot but Neal has been on fire this year and there could be a realistic chance of him scoring 40 goals. Although, it should be worth noting that he got off to this kind of start last season, too and eventually faded out but the werid thing is that Neal isn't shooting that high at even strength (6.84 on ice sh%), so his numbers are going to pick up there soon, especially when Crosby comes back.
Matchups & Game Notes
- Ward is starting another back-to-back and I honestly don't know why. He hasn't been good lately and could probably use a rest. Granted, Boucher hasn't been much better but he's only started three games. I thought the reason we signed him was to give Ward a few nights off every now and then.
- If you're wondering why Sutter hasn't been scoring that much this year then take a look at where he's started most of his shifts. Less than 35% of them have been in the offensive zone and he isn't exactly succeeding with those either so I'm all for lightening the load on him a bit. Maybe give some of those minutes to Tim Brent or even Eric Staal. Stall did against relatively tough competition last season. Then again, that's not "this year's Eric Staal" or whatever term people are using to describe this little slump he's in.
- More on Staal, his line last night with Ponikarovsky and Boychuk was the Canes best line and one of the best territorially. However, they were not creating chances and that's a big problem. I'm all for keeping this line together for now, though.
- One thing different about Skinner, Jokinen and Ruutu's line is that they aren't getting the benefit of soft zone starts like they were last season and yet they are still playing well. I'm hoping they can return to getting easier minutes once Staal starts scoring more.
- Look out for Jay Harrison to be the possibly replacement for Pitkanen in the top-four. He's having a pretty good season and played the most minutes out of any defenseman at even strength last night. He also has some experience playing with Jamie McBain so I wouldn't be surprised if he's the one bumped up into the top-four instead of Kaberle. However, I think Kaberle should be moved there when you consider what we're paying him.
- The Pitkanen injury probably means that McBain, or any other defenseman for that matter, will not be traded.
- Martin and Letang will probably be assigned the Staal line which means that Skinner's line might have a favorable matchup against Engelland and Orpik. Orpik's a stud in his own zone but I still don't trust Engelland that much.
- Allen and Gleason are the de-facto top defense pairing now and they were actually bumped out of that role last night after not playing well. Here's hoping they have a bounce-back game because they are gonig to have their hands full against that top line of the Pens.