Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (37-22-9; 85 points, 3rd place in Metropolitan division) @ Buffalo Sabres (30-30-9; 69 points, 6th place in Atlantic division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in the Pittsburgh viewing area, MSG-B, Sportsnet in Canada
Opponent Track: Beating Pittsburgh 4-3 in OT on March 1st seemed to be a last gasp of a fading team, Buffalo has gone a dreadful 0-4-1 since then. They’ve lost their last two games by a combined 5-0 to Colorado and then Dallas.
Pens Refresh: Tonight’s challenge might be finding a challenge- Pittsburgh ended Boston’s 19 game point streak on Sunday, then stopped division leader Washington’s seven game win streak on Tuesday night.
Season Series: Tonight is the final game of the regular season between these two clubs. There was the aforementioned Conor Sheary OT goal on March 1st for Buffalo. The first game of the season was back on November 19th and also a Buffalo OT win, this time by a 5-4 score.
SBN Team Counterpart: Die by the Blade
Tale of the Tape
—I asked and I received in the last game preview about the Pens’ shooting percentage (which was 10th in the league prior to the Caps game and now spikes back up).
—Buffalo is an interesting team to examine with these stats. They shoot the puck a lot (that’s good!) but don’t have a lot of skill so they don’t turn that into a lot of goals (that’s bad). They get pretty solid goaltending (encouraging!) but have to lean on them way too much, which results in giving up a lot of goals against (not so good).
—BUF has some signs of being a competitive team (able to be a volume shooting team, really good PK) but just can’t put it together just yet with enough skill to win games.
Player Stats at a Glance
—Eichel has already set career single-season highs in assists and points, and tied his best year in goals. Weird trivia - his goals per season are 24, 24, 25, 25. Good guy to have out of the lineup since without him there’s Skinner and Reinhart and...not much else.
—It’ll be interesting to see what GM Jason Botterill can do with this team in the summer. He’s got Skinner as an unrestricted free agent, who he most certainly wants to re-sign badly, but not too much else coming off the books. Jason Pominville and his bad contract are gone, but just about everyone else are still under contract for next season.
—Carter Hutton is quietly having a very solid season. If you take the top 32 goalies in games played (35+), so basically every team’s starter - he ranks tied-13th in save percentage with his .912% — another reminder that it’s a very down year for save %. (Matt Murray checks in at 9th, by the way).
Anyways, it’s a shame Hutton is already 33-years old and just now emerging as a starting goalie, his career .920 ES save% is very solid and for a goalie market known for big swings in performance Hutton has been pretty steady. Best of all he’s on the books for two more seasons at a very friendly $2.75m cap hit.
We say it’s a shame is since it looks like it’s going to take at least another 2-3 years before Buffalo is back to going anywhere and by that point, Hutton will be inching towards old for an NHL goalie. So, ironically enough, when they finally are ready to compete they may have to be thinking about switching gears and finding a new starting goalie.
Possible Lines (from Wednesday’s practice)
Alex Nylander - Casey Mittelstadt - Tage Thompson
Conor Sheary - Evan Rodrigues - Sam Reinhart
Jeff Skinner - Vladimir Sobotka - Jason Pominville
Scott Wilson - Johan Larsson - Kyle Okposo
Expected scratches: Jack Eichel (suspension) Zemgus Girgensons (healthy)
Rasmus Dahlin - Brandon Montour
Matt Hunwick - Rasmus Ristolainen
Marco Scandella - Casey Nelson
Questionable: Zach Bogosian (upper body injury)
—The first line is a sort of “line of the future” with all the players 20-21 years old. But as a microcosm of the team, they need to get it in gear too, the trio has combined for 125 total man-games this season and just 33 points.
He said it
Coach Phil Housley on the newly formed young first line:
“I’m excited to see what the young guys can bring,” Housley said. “I really liked Tage’s game. I thought Mittelstadt attacked the game. Alex, as the game wore on, got more comfortable and had a couple good looks.
”… I really liked what they brought. They were creating, they used their speed, they were attacking the game. We need more of it.”
In particular they really need to hit on the Nylander pick, they’ve given the 2016 8th overall pick extra time to develop in the AHL this season and tonight will be only his second game in the NHL this season.
Buffalo’s drafted six times in a row now in top 10, and that’s looking like it will be seven this year. They really have to draft and develop well at the top, which they have a couple times (Eichel, Dahlin, Reinhart all very good picks) but the others the jury is either still out, or it’s not looking too promising.
Sheary - as we saw on March 1st, our former baby boy scored the OT winner. He’s got a team-high five points (3g+2a) in the last six games. Overall though, he still needs nine points in the last 13 games of the season to trigger Pittsburgh’s trade return to go from a 4th rounder to a 3rd. Can he get there? Hopefully not at the Pens’ expense tonight!
Montour - since coming over from Anaheim in a February 25th trade, Montour has four points (2g+2a) in seven games as a Sabre and playing 21+ minutes a night too.
(Pretty much everyone else)
Skinner - Hasn’t scored a goal since February 15th (12 games). Only one assist in the last six games. He’s still firing away with the team-lead in shots on goal as of late, but nothing is finding its mark.
Dahlin - no points in the last six games for the 2018 #1 pick. His minutes have gone way up as the season has gone on and what he’s accomplished playing defense in the NHL is very impressive.
Goalies - Carter Hutton has been hurt recently but is healthy now, so Linus Ullmark has played a bit recently. Ullmark has a 1-3 record with a .893 save% in his last four games. Hutton played pretty well two games ago against Colorado, stopping 40/42 in a loss.
And now for the Penguins...
Check the game notes, eh bud?
Infographic courtesy of the Penguins:
Jared McCann - Sidney Crosby - Jake Guentzel
Teddy Blueger -Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist
Joseph Blandisi - Matt Cullen- Garrett Wilson
Jack Johnson / Justin Schultz
Marcus Pettersson / Erik Gudbranson
Brian Dumoulin / Zach Trotman
Expected scratches: Juuso Riikola (healthy), Kris Letang (upper body injury), Chad Ruhwedel (upper), Bryan Rust (lower), Zach Aston-Reese (hip)
Injured Reserve: Olli Maatta (upper body)
—Wednesday was a travel day for the Pens, no skating, so we’ll have to see at Thursday’s morning skate if there’s any indication Letang is able to come back for this game. Otherwise, it should be steady as she goes with the same lines and combinations as the win against Washington.
Eye on the Standings
—It’s really heating up. The Pens could start putting some upward pressure on NYI and WSH with another win or two. But, if they lose a game or two, they’re right back in the pit with CAR, MTL and CBJ fighting just for survival above the dreaded cut off line.
—To add to the fun, a few really clutch games are coming up here soon. MTL/NYI and PHI/WSH tonight. CAR/CBJ tomorrow. What should a Pens’ fan root for? Really just no OT and let the chips fall as they may. Teams are guaranteed to get points here, which is bad, but as long as the loser gets 0 points, that’s good!
The Pens are well-positioned right now, the only games to truly worry about are the ones they can control - their own. Outside market scores will affect how the picture changes, but again, teams in the race getting points is unavoidable, and OK. Overtime games bring more pain so hopefully in any key matches (especially CBJ/CAR) the game is decided in regulation.
Key to the Game
Never give them a chance
Buffalo just lost 2-0 on Tuesday. Before that, 3-0 on Saturday. Their best player (by a mile) is suspended. They are a team with no hope of the playoffs, and one that will fold up and go away quietly if they’re not given a chance.
Pittsburgh gave them a chance last time out though. They were losing 1-0 just 3 minutes into the game and let the Sabres hang around long enough so that Montour’s shot in the third period could tie the game. Tonight the Pens need to take control more. It’s late in the season against a team going no where, these should be the games to pile into the win column. It’s not as easy as just show up and win, an honest effort will be required but there’s no doubt which team has more talent and has reason to be hungrier to win in this one.