Penguins (36-13-2) (74 points, 1st in Metropolitan)
Stars (23-20-8) (51 points, 5th in Central)
The Penguins head west for a game to take on the Dallas Stars for the first time this year. It’s always interesting to see the Penguins match up with teams from the Western Conference who they don’t get to see much, especially after last year’s lockout prevented interconference games in the regular season.
Puck drops at 8:00 on ROOT Sports.
The Penguins are coming off a wide open 6-4 win over the Islanders on Thursday which saw them come back from a 2-0 deficit and hold off the pesky Isles late. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin seem to be playing at a level that just transcends human interpretation at this point. Crosby has opened up a huge lead in the scoring race, and Evgeni Malkin is making 4 or 5 plays a game that just have you wondering how the hell he pulled it off.
The storyline that everyone will likely be playing up is the trade from 2011 which sent then highly-touted Penguins’ defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. Typing and then reading those words almost sound laughable. And by almost, we mean laughable. After struggling (alongside Ben Lovejoy, #NeverForget) in his first portion of a season in Pittsburgh, Niskanen has slowly emerged and really broken out this season in his role with the Penguins. Not bad for the guy who was the roster plug tack-on to a deal where Neal was clearly the feature piece for the Penguins. Oh, and Neal has become an All-Pro winger alongside Evgeni Malkin, scoring 40 goals in 2011-2012, and putting up 1.3 points per game this year in spite of handling injury issues.
In addition to Matty Niskanen putting up more than a point per game over his last 16 games, Olli Maatta has come on strong lately as well. He had a rough patch that he played through, most notably in a nationally televised game against Washington and then with a nasty little goal on Thursday against the Isles. If you’d have told us that with this Penguins’ defensive corps looking like it did on paper at the beginning of the season that we’d be talking about the Maatta-Niskanen pairing, we’d have probably lit your pants on fire. Update: Per Dave Molinari at the PG, Ebbett will return to the lineup tonight.
Kunitz – Crosby – Kobasew
Neal – Malkin – Jokinen
Pyatt – Sutter – Megna
Glass – Ebbett – Adams
Orpik – Martin
Letang – Scuderi
Maatta – Niskanen
The Dallas Stars are a team that has been through some turmoil lately, missing the playoffs the past few years straight. The aforementioned trade happened under the tutelage of Joe Nieuwendyk, who has since lost his employment as the Stars’ GM.
Speaking of trades, though, the Stars made one of the biggest offseason splashes this year, sending Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and former Penguin prospect Joe Morrow to Boston in exchange for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Ryan Button.
And then there is the saga of Dustin Jeffrey. The Penguins waived him, Dallas claimed him, and then Dallas waived him again. He cleared waivers because no one wanted his potential and was reassigned to the Stars AHL affiliate. He and Zach Boychuk have a “We hate NHL GM’s and having to file multiple W-2’s” Facebook group together.
The Stars are coming off a 7-1 shellacking of the Maple Leafs, in which they made fun of Justin Bieber and apparently got way inside the Phil Kessel’s head.
Roussel – Eakin – Garbutt
Cole – Fiddler – Whitney
Peverley – Horcoff – Chiasson
Goligoski – Daley
Jordie Benn – Dillon
Rome – Gonchar
Will be good to see Sergei Gonchar again. What a player.
What To Watch For:
1) That Stars’ first line is pretty nasty. Seguin is playing his natural center position now in Dallas, and he’s got two big-bodied, skill-oozing wingers in Jamie Benn and youngster Valeri Nichushkin. The matchup with Orpik-Martin should be an interesting one to watch. Lots of speed and skill without a lack for size. Maybe the Penguins can slow down Seguin by sending some hookers and booze to his room on Friday night.
2) *Stock Special Teams Note* You’ve heard this lines a thousand times and you’ve seen it all before, but the Pens will be going up against the 16th ranked PK (80.8% tonight and the 24th ranked powerplay (14.8%), while they’re at the top of both categories (88.4% PK and an audacious 25% on the PP). Dallas takes the 15th most penalties in the league, but are right in the middle of the pack (13th) in times shorthanded. Theoretically, the Pens could have another field day if they can get the Stars to take some penalties and do their thing on the PP, which just looked nasty on Long Island.
3) Look out for Kari Lehtonen. Since leaving Atlanta a couple years ago, he’s been one of the most underrated (read: least talked about) goalies in the game. Part of that has been playing on teams like the Thrashers and the Stars, but the Finnish product has some pretty decent career stats despite that. He’s the type of goaltender that’s made his bacon on stealing games and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him rise to the occasion tonight.
Knock out the Stars.
Boom. Bumper. Go Pens.