Pittsburgh Penguins (46-21-6, 98 pts) @ Ottawa Senators (37-28-10, 84 pts)
No. 1 seed in Reach Tonight
The New York Rangers (46-21-7, 99 pts) have picked the worst time to go through a slump, losing 4-1 last night to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice, setting up a situation tonight where they could fall out of first place for the first time in months.
The Penguins one point behind the Rangers for the East lead, and three back of league-leading St. Louis for the league lead in points, could move into first place with a win tonight and Rangers loss. Following a 4-3, seven game home stand, the Rangers face the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto tonight, and the Penguins have a game in hand.
New York is a team that hasn’t been in this position before. They’ve often been scrambling for the 8th or 7th seed, and the Penguins are a group that once they take over first place, few see them giving it up.
Earning the No. 1 seed would have the Penguins avoiding the Philadelphia Flyers (43-23-8, 94 pts) who are 3-1 against Pittsburgh this season. However, facing the No. 8 seed likely won’t be a walk in the park as it seemed a few weeks ago.
The Washington Capitals (37-30-8, 82 pts) who are currently 8th in the conference, are still a dysfunctional group at times, but Alexander Ovechkin is finally starting to find his game with 6 goals in his last four games and most notably, star center Nicklas Backstrom has been cleared to practice with no restrictions and the Capitals are said to be confident he could be back before the playoffs. There’s enough star power where if the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Mike Green are clicking on all cylinders, Washington could be a dangerous No. 8 or No. 7 seed.
Then there’s the surging Buffalo Sabres (36-29-10, 82pts) who are tied with the Capitals with 82 points and are currently the No. 9 seed. Buffalo, 12-2-3 in their last 17 games, is surging behind the goaltending of Ryan Miller and as we’ve seen in the past, an elite goaltender can cause a No. 1 seed fits like Jaroslav Halak did two years ago with the Montreal Canadiens.
Another team who could fall into the No. 8 spot or out of playoffs is the Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh’s opponent tonight. With Buffalo and Washington trailing the No. 7 Senators by just two points, Ottawa has no room for error with seven games remaining.
The Senators though are a team who like Washington and Buffalo could be a tough out for the Penguins if they nab the No. 1 seed. The Senators have given the Penguins fits defensively, taking 2 of 3 games, defeating Pittsburgh 6-4 and 5-1 in the last two matchups between the two teams. The Senators though likely don’t have the defensive prowess to take four of seven games against Pittsburgh.
Struggles for No. 1 seeds (Eastern Conference)Â in Playoffs
Since the lockout, only one No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference has advanced past the second round:
2011: Playoffs No. 1 Washington (eliminated in second round)
2010 Playoffs: No. 1 Washington (eliminated in first round)
2009 Playoffs: No. 1 Boston (eliminated in second round)
2008 Playoffs: No. 1 Montreal (eliminated in second round)
2007 Playoffs: No. 1 Buffalo (eliminated in third round, East Finals)
2006 Playoffs: No. 1 Ottawa (eliminated in second round)
THIESSEN VS BISHOP
Two of the top AHL goaltenders in the past couple seasons will face each other tonight in Ottawa. Head coach Dan Bylsma will go back to goaltender Brad Thiessen, giving Marc Andre Fleury a night off as the Penguins embark on back-to-back games this weekend, facing New Jersey tomorrow night at home.
Thiessen, 3-0 on the season with a 2.68 goals against average, will start for the second time in three games. He gave up four goals in an 8-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, a game where Thiessen wasn’t particularly sharp with his positioning as he was flopping around quite often. Tonight will be his first NHL road start.
Senators starter Ben Bishop acquired from the St. Louis Blues on deadline day for a second round pick, is 3-2-2 with a 2.16 goals against average and .918 save percentage.
LOVEJOY BACK IN THE LINEUP
Defenseman Matt Niskanen did not make the trip to Ottawa and won’t play tonight. Defensemen Ben Lovejoy who has fallen to 7th on the depth chart, will return to the lineup. Lovejoy last played on March 11th, and will be paired with Deryk Engelland. Lovejoy has been a plus or even player in eight straight games and has 2 assists in his last three games played.
Eric Tangradi is expected to be in the lineup over Richard Park due to the Penguins wanting some size on the 4th line to combat the Senators gritty style.
Joe Vitale (upper body) remains out of the lineup.
Kunitz – Malkin – Neal
Cooke – Crosby – Kennedy
Sullivan – Staal – Kennedy
Tangradi – Adams – Asham
Orpik – Michalek
Martin – Letang
Lovejoy – Engelland
Brad Thiessen in Goal
*The Penguins lead the NHL in goal differential (+59) and are first in the league in goals, averaging 3.22 goals per game
*Paul Martin a +4 on the season, is a +12 in his last 9 games.
*Evgeni Malkin the NHL leading scorer with 95 points, has 13 goals and 11 assists during the Penguins current 13-0-1 run.