The Nashville Predators did it last night, and tonight the Pittsburgh Penguins will hope to complete their own sweep through Western Canada. It would be quite an accomplishment for a team that despite it’s superstar roster dropped 7 of its last 9 before heading out to Calgary, and five players from Pittsburgh are getting a taste of what Vancouver will be like as the host-city for the Olympic Winter Games next month as they face the Canucks tonight. It will be a tough test for Pittsburgh, especially to see whether they can break through an elite goaltender in Roberto Luongo. They certainly struggled to adapt to Martin Brodeur this season, and those points lost to the Devils are why they are 4th in the conference and not top of the division.
Luongo was pulled in the Canucks last game against Minnesota, but really that was the only blemish on a superb January for him and the team which has put them back into a playoff spot. They are only two points behind Colorado and Calgary for the division lead, and with the reluctance of the Avalanche to fade into obscurity the Northwest has certainly improved from top to bottom over last year, with only the Oilers dropping out of realistic contention.
The Canucks got the better of Pittsburgh at the Mellon Arena last season with a 3-1 victory, and that was the game where Roberto Luongo sustained a groin injury that would see him missing 24 games. The Penguins last visited GM Place over two years ago winning 2-1 after the shootout. So it would seem that tonight’s game would be a low-scoring affair- Pittsburgh has gone under 5.5 goals in its previous two games in Alberta, but this was with Marc-Andre Fleury back to playing some of his best hockey this season, and he will not be playing tonight because of a fractured finger, relative unknown John Curry will go instead with Brent Johnson on injured reserve.
Even though the Penguins have won their last two they have still really struggled, but Fleury has given them enough support each time to try and recover, which they did. He was by far the 1st star against Calgary stopping 37 shots, and was also really the only Pens player who was switched on through three periods against Edmonton. If it wasn’t for his big saves keeping the game at 2-0 it would have been an embarassing loss, but Pittsburgh finally got it going in the third to come through, though not without a break or two. Jordan Staal had three points as the third line was the driving force on Thursday, and has been for all of the road trip. Whether they win or not, Staal has produced consistently for Pittsburgh giving him great fantasy value and he is probably the best third-line center in the league. He couldn”t really do more to earn a place on Steve Yzerman’s roster.
It was surprising to see how the plummeting Oilers (1-12-1 in last 14) limited Sidney Crosby. I can’t remember another game where Crosby has been that quiet. If there have been other nights there are only a few, as Crosby brings so much to the ice every night. His strength to control the puck along the boards has never really been in question, but his faceoff numbers are an incredible increase over any other year in his career. He leads the league in total won and is almost at a 60% winning percentage, around 8% up on the 2008-09 season, and everyone knows how much success he has had with shooting the puck. With 30 goals he has a real shot at the Rocket Richard Trophy.
It’s clear that Evgeni Malkin hasn’t lived up to his MVP status so far, and he is much more likely to in effect become invisible in a game than Pittsburgh’s other centers. We saw what effect this has on the team in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, and likewise how he can single-handedly dismantle a team when he is hot, the best example being his 6 goals in the sweep of Carolina last Spring. There is not much Geno has done to justify a #2 spot in a fantasy draft, with no goals since a hat-trick against Ottawa on Dec.23, and everyone was scoring then! He is also only a plus-5 on the year, and his tendency to be a minus is certainly not a great thing, and Bylsma has tried many wingers alongside Malkin on the second line to try and get him going, even Michael Rupp was there at one point. Though against the Oilers Malkin was more puck-confident, which is good news for Pens fans. The current combinaion is Talbot-Malkin-Fedotenko, which was the same second line from the 2009 playoffs, though it has only recently been tried out again. I was hoping this line would finally be put together, but Maxime Talbot really hasn’t been the same player since his injury .
Pittsburgh will be without Brooks Orpik for the fourth straight game, and he has been missed. Kris Letang has got physical at times but there is no doubt that Orpik is the one player who can really keep forwards to the outside with his hitting ability. Ben Lovejoy has been playing while Orpik has missed time and Alex Goligoski has now played a few games played with Kris Letang as a pairing. These are the two defensemen the organisation hopes will be the next generation to lead after Sergei Gonchar. Certainly they are maturing into excellent players at both ends of the ice, and they are two of the best skaters on the team, but seeing this development as a green light to let Gonchar go I feel would be a huge mistake. Gonchar has had contract talks recently, that apparantly went well, and Pittsburgh should really make it a priority to get him signed. Pittsburgh’s powerplay is still woeful, but without Gonchar it would be even worse, and the PP is slowly getting there. Bylsma finally moved Malkin down from the point, but Geno still seems reluctant to move closer in and control the play. It’s a problem that Crosby and Malkin’s best position on the powerplay is similiar, because it means Crosby ends up in front of the goal alot and I don’t really see that isn’t really the best way forward. As long as they shoot more, and with Goligoski and Gonchar now together on the top unit, there is really no reason why that efficiency can’t increase.
Vancouvers top line is no doubt one of the best in the league, along with its consistent high fantasy value and it will be interesting to see how Bylsma will try and stop them. Alexandre Burrows is still red-hot and Henrik Sedin is still the NHL’s leading scorer, and alot of their success has come at home where the Canucks have been strong. So with one of their best players in Fleury out of the line-up, the Penguins will be hoping that third line keeps rolling, and that Evgeni Malkin will finally break out of his slump.
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