PITTSBURGH (38-16-8) VS TAMPA BAY (29-25-8)
THE PAINT CAN. PITTSBURGH, PA.
7:00 PM EST. NHLN & ROOT
The Penguins are finally home for the first time in what feels like weeks but really it’s only been 2 games unless you don’t count the Stadium Series game as a home game. Tonight they are having a bit of an ECF rematch with the Lightning, except it’s more of a consolation round matchup this time around as both teams are pretty banged up and nowhere near what they were in May of last year. The Lightning have played more hockey than anyone over the past few seasons reaching the finals in 2015 and then going to game 7 of the ECF last season. The grind toll has seemingly caught up with the squad as injuries have occurred throughout their season, including yet another lengthy injury to team leader Steven Stamkos. Just like last season in his absence the Lightning are trying to manage just enough out of the tank to will themselves to the playoffs, currently only 4 points back from the final wild card spot.
Almost every game the Penguins play in March is against a team that is currently within 6 points of a wild card spot, so if they were hoping to have an easy March that is out the window. This is a good thing for the Pens as it ramps up the level of competition for their games in March, and the division is a little closer than some would care to admit:
Of course who ever falls into that 4th spot gets a trip through the Atlantic in the playoffs and seemingly avoids a few teams at the price of having to listen to Montreal fans for the first round, not a terrible deal. With a 14 point cushion between their current spot and the final wild card spot the Penguins don’t really have to be inspired to play amazing hockey, so the level of competition is going to dictate the play most nights in March (see Dallas game). I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about it until the Penguins stop looking like the Penguins, which is yet to happen.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
The Lightning did what the Penguins couldn’t and shipped their veteran goaltender west, so now the net belongs to the youngster Vasilevskiy. This is great news because now I have to spell Vasilevskiy every time instead of Bishop. In return the Kings said “umm…thanks for keeping our season floating with your 7 shut-outs and all but girl bye” to Budaj. The Lightning also handled some business for GMJR as they dealt with Philadelphia to bring in Mark Streit, only to flip him to Pittsburgh an hour later. We got a sneak peak of the Lightning’s tribute video for Mark Streit:
The Pens haven’t had a practice since the Chicago game, so I made up the defensive pairings in the graphic. Even though it’s illegal to type this in Pittsburgh Derrick Pouliot had a strong game against Chicago effectively shutting down Patrick Kane when they were paired together, so in my mind he gets another look tonight and Ruhwedel sits for Streit. Since I said that it will most likely be Ruhwedel getting the start. Since the Pens shipped Eric Fehr to Toronto they placed Carter Rowney on Cullens wing. This will most likely be the case again unless Conor Sheary is ready, which after the last road games all indications were he was pretty close. If Sheary is healthy we may get a Sheary-Crosby-Guentzel top line, and that will be glorious. I suspect the second line to stay the same, as those three are starting to find some good chemistry.
This is the luxury of being comfortable in the standings, Sullivan can switch guys around each game and find that lethal combination in time for the playoffs.
WHO TO WATCH:
FOR TAMPA BAY: JONATHAN DROUIN
It’s only his third NHL season, the last of his entry level contract, but it feels like he’s been around far longer than that. The kid has a bit of an attitude but I am one of those losers that doesn’t mind attitude, if you can play, you can play, eh? 17 goals and 22 assists in his 53 games this season is starting to drive his negotiating price higher and higher as the offseason nears, so the Lightning wisely made cap space available at the deadline. There is going to be an issue of how much Drouin thinks he is worth and how much Yzerman thinks he is worth, but after getting Stamkos to take a discount I have little doubt that Drouin will be on the Lightning next season, unless he doesn’t want to be. He also has the best work ethic in the game, or so we are told by Mr. Neverwrong Jeremy Roenick. Never trust a grown man that still gets highlights, that’s my advice.
FOR PITTSBURGH: TOM KUHNHACKL
I have been a fan of Kuhnhackl all season, constantly saying he is a younger and cheaper Fehr with better hands. Now he gets a chance to show how much or how little I know. It will also be a chance for Pens fans to be able to watch Kuhnhackl and compare his every move to what Fehr would’ve done (not much) in the same situation. Kuhnhackl currently sits with 3 goals and 5 assists in 37 games, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him finish with at least 10 more points in the remaining 20, especially after finally receiving a set role with the team.
The Penguins will actually have a somewhat NHL-caliber defense tonight with the addition of Streit to the blue line. Go easy on Streit with your judgements at first, it takes awhile to get that orange shitstain bleached off. As the mystery of Letang’s injury stays in the shadows this defense tonight may be the defense the Pens use throughout most of the month, so it will be a good first look at things against a speedy Tampa team. Most likely Murray in net tonight for the Pens. Most likely Sullivan lighting a fire under the teams ass after dropping two in a row. Most likely a fun night of hockey in Pittsburgh. Gotta love this sport man, don’t trust anyone that doesn’t.