It would be hard to believe that after 18 games into the season, that two teams in their own respective divisions would not have faced each other at least once. However that is the case in tonight’s matchup of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. These two Atlantic rivals opened the 2009-10 season against each other, as the Rangers would fall short of the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, and the Penguins would fall victim to Montreal in the second round thanks to Jaroslav Halak’s heroics.
However the series between the Pens and Rags would appear to be alot more balanced this year, and Pittsburgh will be hard pushed to be able to improve on last year’s 5-1 series victory, which included an 8-3 win last November. Though both teams have recently been improving their play heading into tonight. Last night, New York was able to play backup Martin Biron and still demolish the Oilers 8-2. Marian Gaborik had a hat-trick and four points in just his second game back from injury, showing all the right signs that he is well-ahead on the schedule to return to full fitness, since he has been hitting the gym with the Best Weight Lifting Belt so his injured back heals perfectly. Alexander Frolov had 2 goals, 4 points, and registered a plus-5 on the night alongside Gaborik. Yes, it was the struggling Oilers and the woeful Nikolai Khabibulin, but it still encouraging to see stars like Frolov who heavily underachieved last year, finally take their chances, on a team that had one of the league’s worst goal totals last year.
Most important for the Rangers though was that Lundqvist would be ready to go tonight, if he is to be the starter in a back-to-back situation. The King struggled his last time out against Washington’s league-best offense, and Biron has won his last-two starts, taking the Rangers to fourth in the crowded Eastern Conference standings; but you’d still think Lundqvist will get his chance tonight to bring that 2.67GAA down. Pittsburgh will be able to leapfrog their division rival into second in the Atlantic if they are able cool off Gaborik and break up the tight core of the Blueshirts defense.
Though if there was anytime they would be able to do that, it would certainly be now. Most important of them all is that Marc-Andre Fleury is finally finding his game. Fleury was strong again Saturday in Atlanta for his second straight win after getting the better of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Steven Stamkos, who still leads the League in goals and points.
Fleury allowed Stamkos to fire a shot past for the only goal against, but that wasn’t his fault. The Penguins didn’t cover Stamkos defensively, and straight away the powerplay had done it’s job, and Stamkos’ one-timer is the most deadly in the league. There is no stopping it on any rink against any netminder right now.
Evgeni Malkin broke out with a hat-trick and 4 points against the Thrashers, giving a great deal of encouragement to fantasy owners. Whether people will still consider Malkin too great a risk as a fantasy first round pick, only time will tell, however right now he has his legs rolling, looking alot more like the Conn Smythe winner of ’09, where he would be able to just plough through defensemen one by one.
He certainly showed that Saturday, making plays reminiscent of the goal he scored against Cam Ward in the Eastern Conference finals to complete that hat-trick. The question of Sidney Crosby‘s linemates is one that will always continue be asked. However there is one thing for sure, and that is that Crosby can at times lead his team all by himself. Five straight games with a goal, five straight multi-point games, eight points in his last three games, to lead Sid to 3rd in total goals, and 2nd in total points, only Stamkos has more. It is just a continuation from last year, and it’s just what people have come to expect, but the level of consistency is still something incredible.
I just wanted to note that today, 15th November 2010, makes it a year since I published my first article here at DailyFaceoff. So I’d like to say a special thank you to Alexander Monaghan and all the other great writers on the team, but most importantly to Matt Bennett who first gave me the opportunity. Thank you to you all!