Pens – Predators 5 Thoughts
1. CUP PREVIEW? The return of talented forward Alexander Radulov has some NHL pundits calling tonight’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins (45-21-6, 96 pts) and Nashville Predators (42-23-8, 92 pts) a potential Stanley Cup preview. The Penguins 12-0-1 in their last 13 games have emerged as the best team in the Eastern Conference, while the Predators, despite struggles to get out of the first round in the past, are built for the playoffs this year with an elite goaltender, tremendous star power on the blueline and depth, and rank 8th in the NHL in scoring, averaging 2.81 goals per game and are 1st in the NHL on the power play. However, it’s up for debate whether they have enough high end offensive players to get past the likes of top contenders Vancouver, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago in the West.
Radulov, 25, will play on the second line with center David Legwand and Patric Hornqvist, the Predators leading goal scorer with 24 goals. Radulov last played for Nashville in 2007-08, scoring 26 goals and 32 assists in 81 games at just age 21. The Predators 15th overall draft pick in 2004, Radulov has recorded 49 goals and 54 assists in 155 career games (including playoffs).
2. Staal should see time with Malkin, Neal: In the past couple games, Jordan Staal has taken a shift or two at left wing with Sidney Crosby and that is expected to continue. However, where Staal should get a look at wing in certain situations is at left wing with center Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. It would be a big strong intimidating line and Malkin, Staal are more comfortable playing together than Crosby and Staal who in their career’s have seen mimimal time together.
I’d rather see that combination (Staal-Malkin-Neal) three to four times a game than Crosby and Staal together. Going the route of using Staal with Malkin and Neal, would also give Crosby a shift here and there with Chris Kunitz if Bylsma doesn’t want to fully breakup the top line.
Eventually here’s what I’d like to see going into the playoffs:
Sullivan – Malkin – Neal
Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Cooke – Staal – Kennedy with Staal getting a situational shift in Sullivan’s spot at left wing with Malkin and Neal.
3. No Gaustad Tonight: As a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Paul Gaustad gave Evgeni Malkin fits in the Penguins 6-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on February 19th, the Penguins last regulation loss. In that matchup, Gaustad was dominant in a shutdown center role and he was in the Penguins head as the team tried to have Malkin stay away from him. Tonight the Penguins won’t have to worry about Gaustad, now a member of the Nashville Predators. Gaustad remains out of the lineup due to an upper body injury. It would have been interesting to see how Predators coach Barry Trotz used Gaustad if he were playing in regards to having Gaustad focus on shutting down Malkin or match him up against Sidney Crosby.
4. Neal’s NHL Ranks: When discussing who the Penguins most important players are when it comes to winning a Stanley Cup, the likes of Marc Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crisby, Jordan Staal and maybe even Brooks Orpik will get mentioned before others. Only in Pittsburgh might a 35 goal scorer not be among the Penguins top-5 most important players to their Cup chances this spring.
Neal’s NHL Ranks:
*35 Goals (4th in NHL)
*72 Pts (9th in NHL)
*15 Power Play Goals (tied 1st in NHL)
*293 Shots (2nd in NHL)
5. Last Vezina Spot up for Grabs?: I spoke with three voters this week and the consensus remains, Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick are the two locks to be finalists for the Vezina trophy and some voters have both, most notably Lundqvist, under strong consideration for the Hart Trophy.
The consensus also from the three voters I spoke with this week is that the final Vezina finalist spot is up for grabs between Nashville’s Pekka Rinne 39-15-8, 2.41 GAA, .923 save percentage, 4 shutouts), Pittsburgh’s Marc Andre Fleury (39-14-4, 2.26 GAA, .916 save percentage, 3 shutouts) and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard (33-15-3, 2.15 GAA, .920 save percentage, 6 shutouts)
One of the three voters also told me he hasn’t ruled out Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak who is 25-11-6 with a 1.90 GAA and 6 shutouts, playing a big part with Brian Elliott in St. Louis’ emergence as the top seed in the Western Conference. However, there isn’t expected to be enough support for Halak due to his lack of games played compared to others. That could also hurt Jimmy Howard, appearing in only 50 games so far, compared to Rinne and Fleury who have played in over 60.
*The Penguins have outscored their opponents 34-13 during their 8 game home streak and Pittsburgh last won nine in a row at home Jan. 28-Feb. 22, 1999.
*Evgeni Malkin (43G-50A-93Pts) enters tonight’s game with a 9 point lead over Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux for the NHL points lead
*The Penguins currently rank first in the NHL In goals, averaging 3.19 goals per game