When: December 4 2010 | Where: Nationwide Arena
Monday, Pittsburgh took on a Rangers team that had won four of five, holding them to one goal and just 26 shots. Thursday, they took down an Atlanta team that had won six straight, limiting them to just 22 shots. Pittsburgh has the chance to extend their winning streak to nine with another win over a quality opponent Saturday in Ohio.
Suddenly, Pittsburgh and Columbus are teams moving in two different directions. After running off five straight wins, the Jackets have suddenly lost four in a row, dropping Friday’s matchup 5-0 to a mediocre Buffalo squad.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is fast on its way to the top of the NHL standings. The Pens have won eight in a row, creeping to within two points of the Washington Capitals for the Eastern Conference points lead.
A ninth-straight win would be Pittsburgh’s best such streak since 1999.
Columbus plays in the hyper-competitive Central Division. Despite the four-game lull, they have managed to stay within a point of second-place Chicago with four fewer games played. Only St. Louis and Nashville sit out of the playoff picture, both two points behind Anaheim for the 8th spot in the West.
The Eastern Conference lacks the depth of the West, as the Atlantic Division lacks the depth of the Central. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh is part of a three-team race for first. Philadelphia sits two points back at 34. Surprisingly, it is the Rangers, not the Devils, who have made the race interesting, with 33 points in 28 games.
Pittsburgh is 3-2-1 all time in Columbus, where Sidney Crosby has 8 points (1G-7A) in five career games. The Pens are 4-2-1 against Western Conference opponents this season. Columbus is 4-1-0 against the East.
Pittsburgh defeated the Blue Jackets in their only meeting last season, a 4-3 overtime winner in Columbus.
17-8-2, 36 pts.
8-5-1 Home, 9-3-1 Road
9-0-1 Last 10
Pittsburgh is 9th overall in goals per game, 19th on the power play. Defensively, the Pens are among the best in the league, allowing 2.4 goals per game (3rd). They allowed their first power play goal against in two weeks against the Thrashers. The PK is second overall at 89.7 percent.
All told, the Pens have a goal differential of plus-18. Their 64 goals allowed are tied for 6th-best in the NHL. Only the New York Rangers (10-4-0 away) have gathered more points on the road.
14-9-1, 29 pts.
6-6-1 Home, 8-3-0 Road
5-4-1 Last 10
Columbus has won with defense. The Jackets are 5th overall in goals against (2.4) and 7th on the PK (86.0 percent). Their offense has held them back, at 16th in goals (2.8) and an abysmal power play (10.5 percent – 28th overall).
Columbus’ offense has produced just 6 goals during their four-game skid, in which they’ve been outscored 15-6 in total.
The Jackets have a goal differential of plus-3, despite a 14-9-1 record.
Pittsburgh fans have made a habit of invading Nationwide Arena. Several local bars have made specials for Pens fans, giving Columbus games the sort of atmosphere experienced by the Steelers away from Heinz Field (whose fans are famously well-traveled.)
Columbus is mediocre at home, 6-6-1 overall. Pittsburgh has been one of the best road teams this season, going 9-3-1 away from CONSOL. Nineteen of their 36 points have come on the road.
Pittsburgh’s last road loss came at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, November 5.
This matchup doesn’t promise to be a barnburner on the power play. Columbus is 28th overall on the PP. Much of that is due to a 5.3 percent success rate at home, where the Blue Jackets have converted on just 3 of 57 chances (and none of their last 25).
Pittsburgh was held without a power play goal against Atlanta. The unit is showing signs of improvement (19th overall, 15.9 percent), but isn’t clicking at a rate that will strike fear into opponents.
Pittsburgh has scored 18 power play goals this year to Columbus’ 10. The Pens have scored 5 shorthanded goals to Columbus’ 2, and have allowed 3.
The Blue Jackets have allowed 4 shorthanded goals, or 2 for every 5 power play goals they’ve scored. Ouch.
Two strong penalty kills ought to make man-advantage goals even harder to come by. Pittsburgh’s PK unit is second overall (89.7 percent). Columbus isn’t far behind, at 86 percent (7th overall).
Pittsburgh has one of the league’s best one-two tandems at goaltender. With a former Penguin in their lineup, so do the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding, gathering another win against the Thrashers with a number of outstanding saves. Fleury is now 10-6-1. His save percentage is at 2.44, dipping below 2.50 for the first time this season. His .908 save percentage is a far cry from the .844 number he posted at the beginning of November.
Brent Johnson has seen little time lately, and his numbers remain strong. 7-2-1, 2.00 GAA, .931 save percentage. Fleury will get the start tonight.
Steve Mason is the number one man in Columbus, despite strong play from backup and former Penguin Mathieu Garon. Mason is 8-7-1 (2.88 – .912).
Garon’s play has been monumental, in spite of the 5-0 blowout loss to Buffalo a night ago. Garon is 6-1-0 this year, with a 1.33 GAA and .950 save percentage. Both numbers place him among the top-ten goaltenders in the league in those categories.
Pittsburgh native RJ Umberger in on a 10-game points streak, landing two assists Friday night. He leads the Blue Jackets in points (8G-11A-19 pts). The former Flyer has also scored two shorthanded goals.
Sidney Crosby has continued his own scoring streak. Fourteen games. Fifteen goals. Fourteen assists. Forty-four total points in 27 games. Crosby landed his first natural hat trick against the Thrashers, scoring three very different goals, all in impressive fashion.
If Crosby continues playing at the level he is now, in terms of production, intensity and consistency, the hyperbole surrounding him will eventually turn into consensus.
Comparisons to Lemieux are unreasonable as they’re totally different players but nonetheless, the streak and level of play are fast approaching a point Penguins fans haven’t experienced since Mario’s heyday.
In a recent ESPN weblog, Senior Writers Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside discussed their early Norris Trophy favorites. The consensus number two was Pens defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang is second on the team with 24 points. His 5 goals and 19 assists have more than replaced the production of Sergei Gonchar, whose role as offensive defenseman was to be replaced by committee this season.
(For comparison, Gonchar has 4 goals and 10 assists in 26 games with the Senators this season, and is a team-worst minus-13.)
Kris Letang leads the Pens with a plus-13 rating.
Blue Jackets defenseman Rostislav Klesla is a league-best plus-17. Marc Methot is a plus-11. Methot will return to the lineup for the first time in four games. Klesla and Methot are expected to get the matchup against Crosby.
In addition to defensemen Mike Commodore, Anton Stralman and Jan Hejda, the Jackets boast a defensive corps that is allowing the fifth-fewest goals per game in the NHL.
Pittsburgh is dealing with some minor injuries to their current lineup as Evgeni Malkin missed Friday’s practice and is bothered by a nagging knee bruise. Malkin did participate in the morning skate, working with Matt Cooke and Max Talbot on the second line.
Max Talbot left Friday’s practice after taking a shot off the foot. Talbot is fine and will play tonight.
Jordan Staal remains out with a fractured hand. He’s 2-3 weeks away from returning.
For Columbus, Kristian Huselius is out indefinitely (foot).
Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Cooke – Malkin – Talbot
Conner – Letestu – Kennedy
Rupp – Adams – Asham
Orpik – Letang
Martin – Michalek
Goligoski – Engelland
Starting Goaltender: Marc Andre Fleury
Starting Goaltender: Steve Mason
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