Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (17-8-4, 38 points, 3rd place Metropolitan Division) @ Florida Panthers (14-12-4, 32 points, 5th place Atlantic Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sports Network Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) for the Western PA market, Bally Sports Florida for the home team, Sling TV, ESPN+
Opponent Track: It’s been an up and down, back and forth type of year. Florida is 4-3-0 in the month of December, but also just 2-3-0 in their last five game. But then again, they won their previous game in a 4-0 shutout of lowly Columbus on Tuesday. Before that, they lost a Sat-Sun back-to-back by a combined 9-3 score to Tampa and Seattle. There’s a lot of give and take for these guys.
Pens Path Ahead: The Pens stay on the road for the weird 5:00pm start time on Sunday against Carolina. Then the Pens come home to play the Rangers and then will host the Hurricanes next week prior to a short Christmas break.
Season Series: Florida comes to Pittsburgh on January 24th for the next meeting of these teams. And then the Penguins get one more trip to Florida on Saturday March 2nd to complete the three-game season series.
Getting to know the Panthers
SB Nation counterpart: Litterbox Cats
Matthew Tkachuk - Aleksander Barkov - Sam Reinhart
Eetu Luostarinen - Sam Bennett - Colin White*
Nick Cousins - Eric Staal - Grigori Denisenko
Ryan Lomberg - Chris Tierney* - Zac Dalpe
Gustav Forsling / Aaron Ekblad
Marc Staal / Brandon Montour
Matt Kiersted / Josh Mahura
Goalies: Spencer Knight or Sergei Bobrovsky
Scratches: Anton Lundell (injured)
IR: Radko Gudas, Patric Hornqvist, Anthony Duclair
—The Panthers have been in absolute shambles lately. An illness has swept through their team and on top of that various guys are getting banged up like White and Tierney from last game. Even without that, their bottom two lies and defense pairs are just riddled with replacement and sub-replacement level patches that make it really difficult to see what the plan was besides going, “oh Tkachuk, he’s pretty awesome let’s grab him” and forgetting to tend to the rest of the team.
—Based on performance and usage, Spencer Knight has more or less taken the starting role from Bobrovsky (Knight started 10 games to Bob’s four from November 6 - December 7th), but Knight has been unavailable due to illness in the last week. And Bobrvosky stepped in last game and shutout Columbus, so who knows what direction they might be heading in.
—Well, I guess now you can see why Jim Rutherford was so desperate to get out of Patric Hornqvist’s $5.3 million annual contract (which expires after this season) one year too early rather than being stuck with him for the duration. The ol’ Swedish battle tank just looks a little past being a viable NHL player compared to what he once was. Hornqvist is on IR and can’t play tonight anyways, hopefully he heals up and can do something in the second half of the season.
—He hasn’t been out of the league, but I coulda sworn Marc Staal has been out of the NHL since like 2019.
Head to head
—The above image could be very sobering for the Penguins. These teams are not dis-similar at all in terms of expected goals for and against, yet Pittsburgh has a slightly better edge in finishing, power play and bigger edges in PK and goaltending. Those differences are the main reasons the Pens are in a playoff position today, and Florida feels like they’re still trying to get off the ground.
And now for the Pens...
Potential Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Rickard Rakell
Danton Heinen - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Brock McGinn - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Ryan Poehling - Teddy Blueger - Josh Archibald
Marcus Pettersson / Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin / Jan Rutta
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry (Casey DeSmith)
Scratches: Drew O’Connor, Mark Friedman, Jason Zucker (week-to-week injury)
IR: Jeff Petry (upper body, LTIR, out until at least January 8th)
—Big chance for Danton Heinen, who almost by default gets a crack at playing on Evgeni Malkin’s line after being a healthy scratch lately. Surely Heinen won’t have a ton of time played in this game, but it’s a golden opportunity to get his season back on track (no goals in 19 games, since October 22nd) with whatever he gets up with a very capable line right now.
—All eyes will be on the new defense pairs in the absence of Petry. Suddenly, the blueline looks really, really weak without him. The Pens have tried to see what would happen with Pettersson and Letang, to varying and at times middling results. They’ve toyed occasionally with Joseph and Letang together. There isn’t a true great option, which is bogging up the rest of the pairs too at this point.
—Riding a six-game winning streak, a team isn’t going to change up more than they absolutely need to, but it will be interesting to see when or if there will be an opportunity for O’Connor and Friedman to play. Especially Friedman, who has been in the AHL so far all season and has experience playing on the left or right sides of the ice. No defender necessarily been an obvious candidate for playing his way out of the lineup, but there probably has never been a better time for that option.
—For housekeeping notes, the Pens have not yet removed Zucker off the 23-player roster and onto IR. Part of Sullivan’s comments were, “we’re hopeful we’re not going to lose him too long here” which could be way too optimistic but there was that one time Hornqvist got back from a Sullivan “week to week” in like five days. Zucker has been ruled out for both of the next two games (he’s not traveling with the team, pretty good indicator there) but he hasn’t been ruled out officially for any longer as of now. So perhaps there’s reason for hope to spring eternal on a post-Chrismtmas type of return that could see him miss as few as four games.