Who: Detroit Red Wings (14-11-7, 35 points, 4th place Atlantic Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (19-10-5, 43 points, 4th place Metropolitan Division)
When: 7:30 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sports Network Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) for the Western PA market, Bally Sports Detroit for the visitors, Sling TV
Opponent Track: Detroit had a longer break than most, they’ve been off a whole week now since a December 21st 7-4 home win over Tampa. Their Dec. 22nd game in Ottawa was postponed due to weather conditions from last week’s big storm. That win broke a prior 0-4-2 losing streak that has seen the Red Wings trail off in December after starting the season with a better record than most perhaps would have expected in the early goings of the year.
Pens Path Ahead: The Pens finish up this stretch of three-games-in-four days on Friday night, with a home contest against the division-rival Devils. Then it’s two days off to prepare for Monday afternoon’s outdoor Winter Classic game at the namesake of Pittsburgh’s ownership, Fenway Park.
Season Series: Today is Detroit’s only visit to Pittsburgh this season. The Pens head to the Motor City on March 28th and April 8th in two late-season matchups to close out the three-game season series.
Hidden stat: In their last two meetings of 2021-22, Pittsburgh beat up on the Red Wings by a combined 18-4 score. (11-2 and 7-2 wins).
Mildly amusing stat: The 2022-23 Red Wings have more players from the 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins draft class (2, Olli Maatta and Oskar Sundqvist) than the Penguins still have in the organization (1, Teddy Blueger).
Getting to know the Red Wings
SB Nation counterpart: Winging it in Motown
Michael Rasmussen - Dylan Larkin - David Perron
Adam Erne - Andrew Copp - Lucas Raymond
Dominik Kubalik - Pius Suter - Oskar Sundqvist
Jonatan Berggren - Joe Veleno - Elmer Soderblom
Ben Chiarot / Moritz Seider
Jake Walman / Filip Hronek
Olli Maatta / Jordan Oesterle
Goalies: Ville Husso (Alex Nedeljokovic)
Scratches: Gustav Lindstrom, Magnus Hellberg
IR: Filip Zadina, Robby Fabbri, Tyler Bertuzzi, Mark Pysyk, Robert Hagg, Matt Luff
NHLPA Player Assistance Program: Jakub Vrana (conditioning assignment. AHL)
—Jakub Vrana has been out since October 15th to take care of some personal issues, very nice to see he should be back in the NHL soon after playing the next few games in the AHL to get back in game shape.
—With Vrana, Fabbri and Bertuzzi sidelined, that’s a lot of the most purely talented and skilled players on the team unable to go tonight.
—This version of the Red Wings definitely does not lack for having size. Their three shortest players in the lineup tonight are listed at 5’11” (Suter, Raymond, Berggren) with all others being 6’0”+. And there are some serious pluses there with the 6’8” and 246 pounds Soderblom being one of the tallest and heaviest players in league history. The 6’6” Michael Rasmussen isn’t far behind and has recently shifted to the wing. A whopping 10 more Wings are listed at 6’2 or taller.
—The core of this year’s forward group (Copp, Perron, Kubalik, Suter) were all free agent signings. All were wisely added for short one or two year teams besides the 28-year old Copp who received a five-year contract in order to join the core. Maatta and Husso were also added to help give the NHL squad a boost as they look to get some short term patches before more young pieces of the Yzer-plan get into place.
—Sophomore slumps? After scoring 57 and 50 points in rookie years last season, respectively, both Raymond (pace for 47 this year) and Seider (pace for 32) have seen their outputs dip in the first half of this season. Raymond does have two points in the last three games and is getting more ice time, they’re trying to play him out of it and the talented youngster is too good to be quiet forever. Both are still foundational members of the team’s ongoing build, but based on last year it looked like they could grow into being some of the best players at their position in the whole league. Has the last few months been a minor bump in the road, or a signal that perhaps the ceilings that they will reach won’t be so sky high? The answer to those questions could determine just how successful the Red Wings will be in three, five, seven years time.
Return of the Maatt
It’s been a fascinating career for Olli Maatta. Maatta, still just 28 years old, is on his fourth NHL team. It feels like he’s been around forever, and in a manner of speaking he has — having made the NHL in the fall of 2013, just 16 months after being drafted.
Somewhat quietly, Maatta has revived his NHL career. He has his limitations, especially offensively — but his defensive positioning, active stick, gap control and solid hockey IQ has made Maatta into a valuable and capable lower-end defensive defenseman.
WAR% has always respected Maatta’s game, even where the eyes don’t say the same. But, let’s remember that Maatta was one of the Pens’ unsung heroes in the Letang-less 2017 playoffs (I’d put his series against Ottawa as a particularly strong and valuable one that stands to this day) but that was followed up by a poor 2017-18. And while WAR liked his 2018-19, Maatta made mistakes in Game 1 of the 2019 playoff series and was benched, ending his days in Pittsburgh, so there’s a viable argument to be made that his uptick below is undeserved and not totally representative of his actual level of play.
After floundering more in Chicago in 2019-20 (which defender hasn’t there lately?), Maatta got the turnaround after the pandemic in 2020-21 in Los Angeles and continued that with two very capable seasons in a row, leading to doing a nice job in his role in Detroit. So far this year he has averaged of 19:29 per game, fourth among defenders on the team — but a team-high 17:50 at even strength (which isn’t saying a ton, the top-four are all very balanced in the 17-18 minute range).
It’s weird to think that Maatta is younger than Josh Archibald and the same age as Teddy Blueger and only a few months older than Jake Guentzel, compared to his contemporaries Maatta was on the scene in an expedited manner and had a rise and fall before some of them (like Blueger) even had an NHL career.
Head to head
—It’s not every day that you see one team have the edge in every single category that is tracked in these graphics, but here ya go. Detroit has been scrappy in the sense that they have a winning record still, and situationally if they’re in a game they can jump out there and take it. But their underlying numbers are still not very impressive for a team that has missed the playoffs for six seasons in a row. They’re bottom-half of the league overall in just about everything.
—But, in today’s parity of the NHL, any team has a chance on any night and the Red Wings will be the more rested group. And they’re a younger group. Will those built-in advantages make a difference?
And now for the Pens...
Potential Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Rickard Rakell
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Brock McGinn - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Drew O’Connor - Teddy Blueger - Danton Heinen
Marcus Pettersson / Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin / Jan Rutta
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel or Mark Friedman
Goalies: Casey DeSmith (Tristan Jarry played last night)
Scratches: Josh Archibald (injury), Ryan Poehling (injury)
IR: Jeff Petry (upper body, LTIR, out until at least January 8th)
—Archibald didn’t travel with the team to New York for last night’s game. Poehling did and practiced, so the latter is likely closer to a game return, though it remains unknown if that will be tonight.
—Ruhwedel absorbed a huge hit in the first period last night, and only played one shift towards the beginning of the second period for the rest of the game. If he is injured and unable to play, the only other healthy defender option on the team would be Friedman to slot in for him and make his NHL season debut. Friedman, 27, has played 42 career NHL games, including 31 total with the Pens over the last two seasons.
—Sullivan was not pleased with the lines last night, for obvious enough reason, and mentioned even before the disaster of a 5-1 loss last night, that changes were coming to the bottom-six based on not meeting expectations.
Mike Sullivan on the recent line play of McGinn-Carter-Kapanen (Video courtesy @penguins.) -DP pic.twitter.com/qlDz6a7Rof— AT&T SportsNet™ PIT (@ATTSportsNetPIT) December 27, 2022
—Getting Poehling back from injury is likely key to those changes, since he can play center and free Blueger up to be moved up a line. From there, it looks like Kasperi Kapanen (0G+3A and only nine total SOG in nine games since his hat trick on Dec. 3rd) is going to be de-emphasized yet again as his yo-yo season and career continues. Danton Heinen, who hasn’t scored a goal since Oct. 22nd, is also starting to get into “what are we even doing here?” territory and a potential player looking at further demotion.