When: 7:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in the Pittsburgh viewing area, Fox Sports Sun in Florida, Sportsnet and TVAS in Canada
Opponent Track: The Lightning have been turning it on as of late. No team in the NHL has more points in the last two months than Tampa’s 42, and they have a super impressive 15-2-1 record since Christmas. They come into this game winners of four straight games, including a 4-2 win over Vegas on Tuesday night their last time out. After an early season hangover following their shocking first round playoff exit, Tampa has rebounded into being the power they were expected to be.
Item to know: But the Pens aren’t far behind Tampa with a 12-3-1 record in their last 16 games. We should be in for a treat in this game with two of the best and strongest teams in the league set to faceoff.
Pens path ahead: After a pretty long break and few days in Florida this week, the Pens will keep soaking it in by getting to make the short trip south east to play the Panthers on Saturday. Next week brings two home games for Pittsburgh, they’ll see these same Lightning at PPG Paints next Tuesday, then draw Montreal for a visit to the ‘Burgh on Friday February 14th.
Season Series: This is game two of the PIT/TB set. Tampa prevailed 3-2 back in late October. That game might be memorable as Kris Letang quite nearly scored a literal last second game-tying goal, but video review could not confirm the puck was over the line and in time. As mentioned above, the Lightning make their only trip of the season to Pittsburgh next week to finish off the regular season series.
Recent History: The Pens have lost four straight games to Tampa, who have been very tough to beat over the course of the last two regular seasons.
SBN Team Counterpart: For your TB news you have to check out Raw Charge.
Tale of the tape
-This truly is a matchup of two titans of the league, with both teams very well-rounded and towards the top end of the league in all the areas that we track.
-Tampa is a solid shot possession/share team, but they truly shine on the special teams, with a 109% index of PP + PK which ranks third in the league behind EDM and BOS.
-Tampa shoots the puck well, but a lot of that is shooting talent. Last year they were second in the league in 5v5 shooting%, the year before that they were first. With their obvious skill, that’s proven to be a repeatable talent.
Player Stats at a Glance
—Kucherov’s production has gone down a bit after a 128-point MVP season last year (would be tough to keep that going forever) where he had more assists (87) than games (82). Still, his 55.7% Corsi For% is team-best and right up there with the best in the league in tipping the ice, and the Lightning score 3.98 Goals/60 with Kucherov on the ice and only give up 1.79 GA/60. For contrast that was 4.0 GF/60 to 2.79 GA/60 last season, so at a full goal per 60 more stingy this season you could argue despite not having the gaudy point totals of last year, Kucherov’s still at MVP levels, or very, very close to it.
—Much like Washington’s run of good health, Tampa has that going for them this season too. 11 of their skaters have played 50+ of their 53 games. Literally every important player on their team has played 47+ games, and most of them are in the virtual full bill of health territory this season.
—Alex Killorn might be having the best “under the radar really, really good” type of season with 41 points in 51 games and already over the 20G+20A mark, with a good chance to be a 30/30 type of player this season. He’s almost in that Chris Kunitz category of being a sneaky good passenger that can do a lot right on a line and also has the hands to finish more than he gets credit for, play a checking role, whatever you need.
Possible Lines (based on Tuesday night game)
Steven Stamkos - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat - Anthony Cirelli - Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn - Cedric Paquette - Pat Maroon
Carter Verhaeghe - Mitchell Stephens - Yanni Gourde
Victor Hedman / Mikhail Sergachev
Ryan McDonagh / Erik Cernak
Braydon Coburn OR Luke Schenn / Kevin Shattenkirk
Expected starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Expected Scratch: Jan Rutta (injured)
Injured Reserve: none
—How about that top line, huh? Wow, talk about some power. But even loaded up with the three top skilled players on the team together, the rest of the lines are deep too. It would be fun if both checking third lines get some shifts against each other.
—Rutta suffered injury last game and is “week to week”. As of press time it wasn’t announced which player (Coburn or Schenn) will draw into the lineup to replace him. It will be an interesting loss since Rutta was being partnered with Hedman. Despite Rutta’s placement on the top pair, he’s only played 14:38 even strength in the last 18 games, which ranks sixth on the team defensively, so he’s far from a true first pair player, but removing that piece of the puzzle will still have to be managed.
—Much like the Pens, Tampa often has an impressive pipeline of young talent often making their way into the NHL ranks. Verhaeghe (23 years old) and Stephens (24) look like that next wave in a line that includes guys like Gourde and Cirelli who have blossomed from deep in the organization to being NHL contributors.
And now for the Pens..
Potential Lines (based on Wednesday practice)
Jared McCann - Sidney Crosby - Dominik Simon
Bryan Rust - Evgeni Malkin - Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev
Alex Galchenyuk - Sam Lafferty - Anthony Angello
Jack Johnson/ Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Chad Ruhwedel / Justin Schultz
Expected starting goalie: Matt Murray
Expected scratches: Dominik Kahun (concussion), Juuso Riikola (healthy), Andrew Agozzino (healthy)
Injured Reserve: Nick Bjugstad (core muscle surgery), Brian Dumoulin (ankle surgery), Jake Guentzel (shoulder)
—A bullet was dodged after Rust was not on the ice for practice earlier in the week, but was in media sight riding a bike and officially having a “maintenance day”. Which is Mike Sullivan speak for being dinged up enough to be out of practice for a day, but still expected to play the following game. Rust did return to practice yesterday in his typical spot with Malkin, so he should be good to go and hopefully the extra soft spot in the schedule did well to help him recover from whatever unannounced minor ailment he was dealing with. At this point, Rust is a player the team can’t afford to be without right now.
—Somewhat quietly, Simon is up to five points (3G+2A) in the last seven games. Given his position on the Crosby line right now, getting actual production will be needed and if Simon can keep chipping in, the better off the team will be. It can’t just be a luxury right now.
—According to media reports, Tristan Jarry stayed out for extra work after practice yesterday and Matt Murray left the ice first. This would seem to point to Murray being the choice to start today, but that hasn’t been confirmed. But almost always goalies don’t stay late when they play the next day so draw your own conclusions there. Also, if Murray plays his last three games will have been against TB-WSH-BOS. That’s the three other top teams in the East, which perhaps coincidental, but also stands out a bit given Sullivan’s goaltending strategy, how he splits starts down the stretch could have some meaning.