26-14-1 – 53 pts.
2nd Atlantic, 4th East
6-4 Last 10
Tampa Bay Lightning
15-15-10 – 40 pts.
3rd Southeast, 11th East
4-4-2 Last 10
*The best news for the first game of the new decade is that the Pens won’t be playing New Jersey. Pittsburgh opens up a weekend double-header at Tampa Bay this afternoon. The team travels south to face the Florida Panthers tomorrow.
Lineup Buzz: Pittsburgh did not have a morning skate today in Tampa Bay due to the 3:08 p.m. start time. Marc Andre Fleury will start in goal.
Sergei Gonchar (foot) will not play but did travel with the team. Jay McKee will return to the lineup, replacing Gonchar. McKee was a healthy scratch Wednesday night
At the forward position, Eric Godard could return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch against New Jersey with Zenon Konopka expected to play. Candidates to sit upfront will be Max Talbot and Ruslan Fedotenko, if Godard gets back in the lineup — DePaoli —
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have landed points in seven straight (4-0-3) and are within sniffing distance of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Pens have lost three straight and four of their last five.
The teams have met only once this season, a 4-1 Penguins home victory in October. Steven Stamkos scored the only Lightning goal in that game against markers from Guerin, Gonchar, Dupuis and Rupp.
The Pens have defeated the Lightning in four straight contests going back to last December. Getting to five in a row will be vital if Pittsburgh wants to keep pace with the East’s elite.
It seems early to talk about keeping pace and making a playoff push, but Pittsburgh will want to firm their grip on at least the conference’s fourth seed come playoff time. Avoiding the Devils in the spring, who at this pace will be the top seed, means getting the expected wins over lesser teams.
In their last game following a shutout by the Devils, the Penguins lit the lamp eight times. Another breakout game could be the thing to snap the team out of their recent funk.
Scoring from the wings would go a long way toward breaking the funk, too. Aside from Bill Guerin finding chemistry with Malkin, there has been minimal secondary scoring coming from the wings. Kunitz, Dupuis and Kennedy are all struggling the find the net, and Fedotenko is struggling to keep himself out of the press box.
Keys to Victory
As it seems to be in every game, scoring the first goal is a big helper, and might open up a rally. Taking the home crowd out of a game is an even bigger plus, and the first goal becomes even bigger on the road.
Marc-Andre Fleury will start today. Fleury surrendered four straight in his last outing as the Pens blew a 3-0 lead in Buffalo. A win today will be a nice rebound from the Buffalo game. His counterpart today is Mike Smith, 3-1-1 in his last five outings.
Getting the wingers involved is crucial. Pittsburgh is the strongest team in the league down the middle of the lineup, but secondary scoring has been painfully unreliable since early November.
Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy are Pittsburgh’s spark plugs, and neither has been playing within their game since returning from injuries. The success of these two, as well as Pascal Dupuis, lies in skating and shooting relentlessly.
The Power Play is still last in the league, and the rate won’t go up if the Pens don’t generate chances. They’ve had only five man-advantages in their last three games. The success of the power play will be magnified especially with Gonchar out for today.
The Penguins will be without the services of Sergei Gonchar for at least today’s game, but the Pens’ top defenseman could return tomorrow afternoon against Florida. Matt Walker, Todd Fedoruk and Jeff Halpern sit for the Lightning.
The Penguins are astronomically more successful with Gonchar than without him. How Letang and Goligoski fare in his absence will be a point of interest for today’s game.
Goligoski will play the left and right point today on the Penguins first power play unit. In practice on Friday, Evgeni Malkin took reps on the right point.
The Second-Half Surge
In 2006-2007, it was a second-half surge that got the Penguins back into the playoffs and lit the fuse on the Penguins’ recent streak of success.
The next season, it was the breakout year of Evgeni Malkin and Ty Conklin, whose combined run of success put the team in nice position in the absence of Fleury and Crosby.
Last year, Dan Bylsma’s promotion and the return of Gonchar led the Penguins to a furious late season charge that saw the team jump from 10th place to 4th.
In each of the past three seasons, a late-season push was necessary to get the team into good standing heading into the playoffs. This is the first season of the Crosby era in which the Pens enter the back half of their schedule near the top of the league in points.
Those late-season surges were born of necessity, and the urgency with which the Penguins won those games undeniably carried them through the postseason. It will be interesting to see how the Pens play this second half without the dire need to win.